In The News
Many people seem to have a lucky charm, maybe a lucky pair of socks or a piece of jewelry. New research shows that we are more likely to turn to superstitions or a lucky charm to achieve a performance goal rather than a learning goal, especially when there are high levels of uncertainty.
Performance goals are when people try to be judged as successful by other people.
“For example, if I’m a musician, I want people to applaud after I play. Or if I’m a student, I want to get a good grade,” said lead author Eric Hamerman, Ph.D., of Tulane University.
Performance goals tend to be extrinsically motivated, and are perceived to be susceptible to influence from outside forces. Learning goals are often judged internally, which means they are less likely to be affected by outside forces, he explained.
“For example, a musician wants to become competent as a guitar player and perceive that he or she has mastered a piece of music,” he said.
For their study, Hamerman and Carey Morewedge, Ph.D., at Boston University conducted six experiments to test whether the type of achievement goal would change the likelihood of engaging in superstitious behavior.
Study one examined the reliance on luck by testing preferences for items that were established as lucky or unlucky in a series of conditioning trials. The researchers asked participants to make a choice of which item to use in the pursuit of an achievement goal.
In study two, participants chose whether to view a “lucky charm” before pursuing an achievement goal.
In study three, participants were randomly assigned to either a superstition condition where they were informed a pen had been associated with prior success (lucky) or a control condition (no reference was made to its past history). Participants were then asked to rate their preference to use the item in a performance or learning goal.
In study four, video game avatars were associated with success or failure in a game scenario, and participants were observed to see if they had a preference between avatars when pursuing a performance or learning goal.
The final two studies explored the drivers and consequences of the effect, according to the researchers. In study five, conditioning trials established positive or negative associations for a number of items. Participants then had to choose an item to use in achieving a performance or learning goal.
Study six assigned participants to use an item that had previously been established as lucky or unlucky, and measured their confidence in achieving a performance or learning goal.
The first four studies demonstrate that people use superstitious behavior to help achieve both chronic and temporary performance goals, but not for help achieving a learning goal, according to the researchers.
“Previous research has shown that when a goal has high uncertainty (i.e., I’m not sure if I will be able to achieve it), people are more likely to turn to superstition,” Hamerman said.
“When performance goals become more uncertain, people use superstition to help achieve them. However, increasing the uncertainty of learning goals does not affect whether or not people turn to superstition,”
Participants primed to pursue a performance goal before taking a quiz had a stronger preference for a lucky pen than a pen positively associated with intelligence, whereas participants primed to pursue a learning goal did not exhibit a stronger preference for either pen, according to the study’s findings.
Study six found that participants assigned to use a lucky rather than unlucky avatar exhibited increased confidence in achieving a performance goal, but not a learning goal.
Hamerman cautions that the research does not investigate whether belief in superstitions has an effect on actual performance.
“We show that using superstition increases people’s confidence in achieving performance goals, and it is certainly possible that under certain circumstances, increased confidence may lead to improved performance,” he said.
“However, we acknowledge that superstition is not a rational way of actually helping to achieve such goals, and the purpose of the research is not to recommend superstition as a method of goal achievement.”
While participants may have experienced greater confidence, there was no reported performance improvement on quizzes in studies one, four and five, he added.
The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
New research shows that people may have to “turn on” or prompt their memories to help them remember even the simplest details.
Findings from the Pennsylvania State study indicate that memory is far more selective than previously thought, according to researchers.
“It is commonly believed that you will remember specific details about the things you’re attending to, but our experiments show that this is not necessarily true,” said Dr. Brad Wyble, an assistant professor of psychology.
“We found that in some cases, people have trouble remembering even very simple pieces of information when they do not expect to have to remember them.”
For their study, Wyble and Hui Chen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, tested the memories of 100 undergraduate students. The students were divided into several groups. Each group performed a variation of the experiment in order to replicate the results for different kinds of information, such as numbers, letters, or colors.
In each trial the students were shown four characters on a screen arranged in a square — for example three numbers and one letter — and were told that they would need to report which corner the letter was in.
After a set amount of time, the characters disappeared from the screen and the students reported where they remembered the letter had been. This part of the task was expected to be easy and errors were rarely made, according to the researchers.
After repeating this simple task several times, the student was asked an unexpected question to probe the memory for the very information used to find the letter’s location.
Four letters appeared on the screen and the student was asked to identify which one had appeared on the previous screen. Only 25 percent of the students identified the correct letter — the same percentage as would be expected to randomly guess it, the researchers noted.
Similar results were obtained when the students were asked to locate odd numbers, even numbers and colors.
“This result is surprising because traditional theories of attention assume that when a specific piece of information is attended, that information is also stored in memory and, therefore, participants should have done better on the surprise memory test,” said Wyble.
Chen and Wyble call the phenomenon they observed attribute amnesia. Attribute amnesia occurs when a person uses a piece of information to perform a task, but is then unable to report specifically what that information was as little as one second later.
“The information we asked them about in the surprise question was important, because we had just asked them to use it,” said Chen. “It was not irrelevant to the task they were given.”
After the surprise trial, the same question was repeated on the next trial, however it was no longer a surprise. Participants did dramatically better, with the average of correct answers between 65 and 95 percent across the different experiments, the researchers reported.
The study’s findings suggests that people’s expectations play an important role in determining what they remember, even for information they are specifically using, according to the researchers.
“It seems like memory is sort of like a camcorder,” said Wyble. “If you don’t hit the ‘record’ button on the camcorder, it’s not going to ‘remember’ what the lens is pointed at. But if you do hit the ‘record’ button — in this case, you know what you’re going to be asked to remember — then the information is stored.”
Wyble and Chen argue this selective memory storage might be a useful adaptation because it prevents the brain from remembering information that is probably not important. The researchers plan to continue this line of research as they study whether people are aware of their own lack of memory.
The study, supported by the National Science Foundation, was published in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: Penn State
A new study has discovered that the area of the brain that enables self-reflection is larger in lucid dreamers — those people who can control their dreams.
According to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, this means lucid dreamers might also be more self-reflecting when awake.
Lucid dreamers are aware of dreaming while dreaming, the researchers explain. Sometimes, they can even play an active role in their dreams. Most of them, however, have this experience only a few times a year.
For their study, the neuroscientists compared the brain structures of frequent lucid dreamers and people who never or only rarely have lucid dreams. They discovered that the anterior prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls conscious cognitive processes and plays an important role in the capability of self-reflection, is larger in lucid dreamers.
The differences in volumes in the anterior prefrontal cortex between lucid dreamers and non-lucid dreamers suggest that lucid dreaming and metacognition are closely connected, the researchers noted.
This theory is supported by brain images taken when the participants were solving metacognitive tests while awake. Those images show that the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex was higher in lucid dreamers.
“Our results indicate that self-reflection in everyday life is more pronounced in persons who can easily control their dreams,” said Elisa Filevich, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
In a follow-up study, the researchers said they intend to train volunteers in lucid dreaming to examine whether this improves the capability of self-reflection.
The study was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Source: Max-Planck Society
In a new study, researchers explored and compared the experiences of people who had been victims of stalking or cyberstalking (harassing or threatening via the Internet).
They found that victims of cyberstalking had to engage in more ‘self-protective’ behaviors, pay higher out-of-pocket costs to combat the problem, and experienced greater fear over time than traditional stalking victims.
“We wanted to investigate where there are similarities and differences between stalking and cyberstalking, and there is a lot of work that still has to be done on that issue,” said study author Matt R. Nobles, assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.
“But independent of the conceptual discussion, the evidence shows that cyberstalking is tremendously disruptive to the lives of the victims. The financial cost of cyberstalking is also very serious.”
For the study, researchers looked at data from the 2006 Supplemental Victimization Survey (SVS), to investigate how several aspects of stalking and cyberstalking differ in order to determine the legal and conceptual relationship between the two crimes. They also investigated how victims of both respond to their situations.
One of their key findings was that victims of cyberstalking engage in more ‘self-protective’ behaviors, such as changing their normal routines or getting a new email address, than victims of stalking.
“Compared to stalking, it is possible that the nature of cyberstalking elicits a very personal violation for its victims, which may elicit more diverse and more frequent protective actions,” wrote the researchers.
“At first glance this may seem counterintuitive given that stalking often involves more immediate physical exposure to offenders and hence to potential danger (e.g. being followed).
“Considering the ubiquity of technology, however, as well as the amount of exposure people now have to its different forms, it is plausible that contact through this medium is just as personal as, or more personal than, face-to-face contact.”
The research team also explored how technology has changed what they call the ‘risk/exposure’ profiles for victims, making stalking easier and self-protection harder. Furthermore, they added that the ‘semi-public’ nature of online stalking tends to influence victim behavior.
“The use of technology in the cyberstalking case, therefore, may be simultaneously more harmful to the victim’s psychological well-being and reputation, thus more decisive in spurring quicker self-protective action,” said the researchers.
The study also revealed differences between age and gender of victims. In cases of stalking, approximately 70 percent of the victims were women, while female victims only represented 58 percent in cyberstalking cases. The average age for stalking victims in the sample was 40.8 years old, while cyberstalking victims averaged 38.4 years old.
The findings can be used by professionals and state legislatures to better understand the causes and consequences of cyberstalking and how it can be addressed in the criminal justice system. The research is particularly illuminating for non-victims who struggle to understand how cyberstalking affects victims’ lives, added Nobles.
“Cyberstalking isn’t checking out someone’s Facebook profile several times a week,” said Nobles. “It isn’t cute or funny. The data tell us that it’s very real and it can be terrifying.”
Their findings are published in the journal Justice Quarterly.
Source: Sam Houston State University
It’s no surprise that memories of highly emotional events, such as the birth of a child, are strong. But a new study shows that these meaningful events can actually strengthen older, more mundane memories.
“We’re continuously monitoring our environment, and, in the process, accumulating countless details,” said Dr. Joseph Dunsmoor, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University (NYU) and lead author of the study.
“We forget most of these details, but these new findings suggest that meaningful or emotional events can selectively preserve memory for previously encountered information that seemed insignificant at the time.”
In a series of experiments, the NYU researchers examined the fate of seemingly inconsequential information with the aim of understanding if and how past memories are updated with new emotional learning.
Participants were asked to identify a series of images of animals and tools. Approximately five minutes later, shock electrodes were attached to the wrists of the participants and they were shown new images of animals and tools that also required identification.
However, upon being shown one category of images — either animals or tools — they received a mild shock. This commonly used procedure was designed to make one category of images emotionally meaningful, the researchers explained.
Memory was then tested, either immediately or after a delay, for all the images seen during the experiment.
Not surprisingly, memory for the images paired with shock was better than for the images not paired with shock, the researchers reported. For example, those who received the shock while viewing animal images were better able to recall those images than images of the tools, which they saw without the shock.
However, the researchers also discovered that this emotional learning reached back in time to influence memory for the images seen before the learning procedure, when no shocks were possible. Specifically, those who received a shock while viewing tool images at a later time were better able to recall tool images seen earlier.
Likewise, those who received a shock while viewing animal images paired with shock were better able to recall animal images seen earlier than the tool images.
In other words, according to the researchers, the participants were able to recall an ordinary memory because it was later linked to emotional learning. This enhanced memory for prior mundane events was only observed after a delay, suggesting that this retroactive memory enhancement occurs by facilitating long-term memory storage, the researchers theorized.
“These new findings highlight the highly adaptive nature of our memory system and suggest that our memories not only can travel back in time to retrieve events from the past, but that it can update past memories with important new information or details,” said Drs. Lila Davachi and Elizabeth Phelps, professors of psychology and neural science whose labs jointly conducted the research.
The study, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, was published in the journal Nature.
Source: New York University
Boys from low-income families who grow up alongside wealthier neighbors tend to fare worse, not better, according to a new 12-year study from Duke University. In fact, the greater the economic gap between the boys and their neighbors, the worse the outcome.
“Our hope was that we would find economically mixed communities that allowed low-income children access to greater resources and the opportunity to thrive,” said Candice Odgers, Ph.D., associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “Instead, we found what appears to be the opposite effect.”
The researchers followed 1,600 children in urban and suburban areas of England and Wales from birth to age 12. They conducted intensive home assessments, surveyed teachers and neighbors, and collected additional data including census information and parent reports.
The team also used Google Street View images to evaluate neighborhood conditions within a half-mile radius of each child’s home. The virtual survey revealed information about housing conditions, parks, the presence of graffiti, and more.
The findings showed that in economically mixed settings, low-income boys got more involved in antisocial behavior, including delinquent behavior such as lying, cheating and swearing, and aggressive behavior such as fighting.
The negative findings only applied to boys, however. For low-income girls, growing up among more affluent neighbors appeared to have no behavioral effect.
Prior research in the U.S. has also suggested that neighborhood surroundings play a smaller role in the development of girls than boys. One hypothesis is that parents may monitor their girls more closely and keep them closer to home.
Low-income boys who were living in the wealthiest neighborhoods actually exhibited the worst behavior, followed by those in middle-income areas. Neighborhoods classified as “hard-pressed,” where 75 percent or more of the local area was poor, had the lowest rates of antisocial behavior. Odgers said the findings held true from ages five through 12.
A theory called the “relative position hypothesis” may help explain the findings, Odgers said. Previous research has found that children often evaluate their social rank and self-worth based on comparisons with their peers. Simply put, being poor may be more unnerving to a child when he is surrounded by wealthier children.
Many policymakers in England and the U.S. have viewed mixed-income neighborhoods as a potential remedy for the toxic effects of poverty, such as increased risks of crime and delinquency. But the new research suggests that this theory be viewed with caution.
“We are not saying that economically mixed communities are universally harmful,” Odgers said. “However, additional care may need to be taken to ensure these communities achieve their intended outcomes for children.”
Although the study focused on low-income children, the researchers also pulled data on working class, middle class, and more affluent children, and found that they fared worse when they grew up alongside poverty. As the amount of poverty in their neighborhoods increased, their levels of antisocial behavior also increased.
In future studies, the researchers plan to examine the effects of mixed-income neighborhoods on other areas, such as educational achievement.
“These findings are troubling given the growing divide between rich and poor,” Odgers said. “They suggest that additional supports may be needed for low-income children who are growing up in the shadow of wealth.“
The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: Duke University
Offering early, clinical care to young people going through their first episode of psychosis would reduce the amount of suffering they experience, lower their financial burden and help them stay in work or school, according to a new study published in the journal Psychiatric Services.
The new clinical model, developed by researchers at Yale University and the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), is a modified version of psychosis clinics from around the world. The final product is called the Specialized Treatment Early in Psychosis or (STEP) clinic, which would provide comprehensive care for early psychosis patients and the people who help take care of them.
Since the first episode of psychosis typically occurs in a person’s late teens or early 20s, it is important that clinicians adapt treatments to meet the needs of this population, the researchers say.
In the new program, the patient would be assigned to a team that coordinates medication, counseling and social skills training, as well as education of family members.
“Age-appropriate, client-centered care based on research that has proven to be effective is of the utmost importance,” said Pat Rehmer, DMHAS commissioner. “These types of intervention can be vital to recovery.”
If the new model becomes widely available, it would significantly reduce the suffering, disability, and financial costs of schizophrenia and related disorders, according to the authors of the study.
“The model is a pragmatic, effective, and economically feasible approach to early psychosis and one that is feasible to implement in real-world U.S. settings,” said Dr. Vinod Srihari, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale and lead author of the study.
The researchers recruited 120 individuals who met criteria for first-episode psychosis to either receive care at the STEP clinic or be given a referral to community providers based on their insurance coverage.
Three out of four in STEP care avoided hospitalization during the next year, compared to about half in the control group. Furthermore, patients in STEP were more likely to be in school, have jobs, or actively be seeking employment than those in usual systems of care.
The STEP clinic is based at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC), which is a public-academic partnership between Yale and DMHAS. The authors believe this is an optimal model for the delivery of care and innovative new services and can work in many areas of the country.
The clinic also launched a campaign called Mindmap designed to increase availability of services in towns surrounding New Haven.
“The message is simple: Treatment is available, effective, and the earlier, the better,” Srihari said.
Source: Yale University
Meditating for just eight weeks has been shown to alter the brain’s gray matter, which may be at least part of the reason why practitioners experience significant improvements in memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress, according to a new study led by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said senior author Dr. Sara Lazar of the MGH Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology.
“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Previous research has shown structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and those with no history of meditation, including a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. However, in those studies, the researchers could not determine whether those differences were actually caused by meditation.
For the current study, 16 study participants completed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Two weeks before and two weeks after the program, researchers took pictures of their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Subjects participated in weekly meetings that included the practice of mindfulness meditation — which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind. They also were given audio recordings for guided meditation practice in which they were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day.
A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.
Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises. Their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire showed significant improvements compared with their pre-meditation responses.
The analysis of MR images also showed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures tied to self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Participants who experienced lower levels of stress also showed decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” said first author Dr. Britta Holzel, a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.
“Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
The findings are published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
Source: Harvard University
As the nation attempts to rebound from the latest sports ethics controversy, emerging research reviews public perceptions of on-the field ethics as compared to public opinion on interpersonal or moral behavior.
In the research, University of Michigan investigators attempt to explain why fans and sponsors dropped Lance Armstrong but stayed loyal to Tiger Woods.
Probably because Armstrong’s doping scandal took place on the field, unlike Wood’s off-the-field extramarital affairs, according to the new studies.
In a series of studies, doctoral student Joon Sung Lee discovered that when fans and consumers can separate an athlete’s immoral behavior from their athletic performance — they are much more forgiving than if the bad behavior could impact athletic performance or the outcome of the game.
The latter happened with Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, which fans viewed as performance-related, a reasoning strategy called moral coupling, said Dae Hee Kwak, a co-investigator onthe study.
Armstrong’s career suffered tremendously, and Nike eventually dropped him.
The opposite happened with Tiger Woods. The transgression wasn’t performance-related, and fans and consumers could more easily separate Woods’ extramarital affairs from his athletic performance, the researchers said.
They rationalized the behavior — moral rationalization — or deemed it irrelevant to the game, called moral decoupling. Woods’ career didn’t suffer nearly as much, and Nike continued its sponsorship and even developed ads to help Woods resuscitate his image.
When Woods shot to number one again after his extramarital affairs, Nike launched a marketing campaign that showed Woods kneeling on the golf course, leaning on his club, and intently watching the green as if eyeing an off-camera shot.
The photo is superimposed with Woods’ trademark quote: “Winning takes care of everything.”
“Based on our findings, one could argue that based on consumers’ views, Nike’s decision was a smart one,” Kwak said.
Researchers believe this information is valuable for sponsors and marketers.
“Sponsors can monitor how consumers view the transgression. They could look at social media, and also conduct surveys or focus groups to see if consumers tend to separate or integrate judgments of performance and morality,” Kwak said.
“Based on their target consumers’ views, marketers can determine when they should continue or discontinue their relationship with the athletes in trouble.”
In the study, investigators presented study participants with different athlete scandal scenarios. When they asked participants how they viewed a doping scandal, 59 percent selected moral coupling strategy and viewed the athlete negatively. When asked for their views on a tax fraud scandal, which is nonperformance related, only 28 percent selected moral coupling and viewed the athlete negatively.
Does this mean athletes get a free pass on tawdry, illegal, or violent behavior?
According to Kwak, the answer is no. For example, Procter & Gamble pulled breast cancer-related sponsorship after public outcry following several NFL scandals.
On the flip side, Baltimore Ravens’ female fans in taped interviews defended football player Ray Rice after a videotape of Rice allegedly beating his then-fiancé aired nationally.
Psychological attachment with the team or athlete seems to play a role here and the researchers are currently investigating the influence of fan identification on making moral decisions.
The study has been published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
Source: University of Michigan
As painkiller (opioid) abuse permeates our country, many are unaware that medications such as codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, or morphine may increase the risk for serious birth defects.
Prescription opioid-based medications are used to treat severe pain and are easily abused. Their use may cause serious birth defects of the baby’s brain, spine, and heart, as well as preterm birth when taken during pregnancy.
Use of these medications also can cause babies to suffer withdrawal symptoms when born, a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS, a growing problem in U.S. birthing hospitals.
More than one-fourth of privately-insured and one-third of Medicaid-enrolled women of childbearing age filled prescriptions for opioid-based (narcotic) painkillers between 2008 and 2012, according to a new analysis published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, women may be prescribed opioid-based pain medications before they or their health care providers know they are pregnant.
“This highlights the importance of promoting safer alternative treatments, when available for women of reproductive age. We must do what we can to protect babies from exposure to opioids.” stated Coleen A. Boyle, Ph.D., MSHyg, Director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD).”
“If you are using an opioid pain killer, you should also be practicing effective birth control, “says José F. Cordero, M.D., MPH, a pediatrician and a birth defects expert.
“If you decide to get pregnant or do become pregnant, tell your health care provider about all the medications you are taking right away. You may be able to switch to a safer alternative.”
Dr. Cordero also urged physicians and other prescribers not to write prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers for their female patients who may become pregnant without a discussion of the risks and safer alternatives.
“The CDC’s Treating for Two: Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy initiative offers information to women and their healthcare providers about medication use during pregnancy.
“This initiative aims to prevent birth defects and improve the health of mothers by working to identify the best alternatives for treatment of common conditions during pregnancy and during the childbearing years,” explains Dr. Boyle.
Source: March of Dimes/EurekAlert
The benefits of fish consumption during pregnancy may override the much-feared risks of mercury exposure, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In fact, the findings suggest that the nutrients found in fish have properties that protect the brain from the potential toxic effects of mercury.
Previously, researchers had compared the ‘health benefits vs mercury’ dilemma as a kind of biological horse race, with the developmental benefits of nutrients in fish outpacing its possible harmful effects of mercury.
However, the new research indicates that this relation is far more complex. It appears that certain compounds found in fish — specifically polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) — may actively counteract the damage that mercury causes in the brain.
The study, which is the culmination of three decades of research in the Seychelles, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean, has found that high levels of fish consumption by pregnant mothers (an average of 12 meals per week) do not result in developmental problems in their children.
“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes,” said Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences and a co-author of the study.
“It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury.”
The research is timely as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and international agencies are in the process of revisiting fish consumption advisories.
The FDA’s current guidelines — which recommends that pregnant women limit their consumption of certain fish to twice a week — was established because of the known risk of high level mercury exposure on childhood development.
“This research provided us the opportunity to study the role of polyunsaturated fatty acids on development and their potential to augment or counteract the toxic properties of mercury,” said Sean Strain, Ph.D., a professor of Human Nutrition at the Ulster University in Northern Ireland and lead author of the study.
“The findings indicate that the type of fatty acids a mother consumes during pregnancy may make a difference in terms of their child’s future neurological development.”
The study followed more than 1,500 mothers and their children. When the children turned 20 months, they underwent a battery of tests designed to measure their communication skills, behavior, and motor skills. The researchers also collected hair samples from the mothers at the time of their pregnancy to measure the levels of prenatal mercury exposure.
The researchers found that mercury exposure did not correlate with lower test scores. This finding tracked with the results of previous studies by the group — some of which have followed children in the Seychelles into their 20s — that have also shown no association between fish consumption and subsequent neurological development.
“It appears that relationship between fish nutrients and mercury may be far more complex than previously appreciated,” said Philip Davidson, Ph.D., the principal investigator of the Seychelles Child Development Study, a professor emeritus at the University of Rochester, and senior author of the study.
“These findings indicate that there may be an optimal balance between the different inflammatory properties of fatty acids that promote fetal development and that these mechanisms warrant further study.”
The Seychelles has proven to be the ideal location to study the potential health impact of persistent low-level mercury exposure. The nation’s 89,000 residents consume fish at a rate 10 times greater than the populations of the U.S. and Europe.
Alluring new research suggests that obtaining adequate amounts of sleep during middle age may help to maintain mental functions 30 years later.
Researchers have known that obtaining appropriate amounts of sleep in young and middle-aged people helps memory and learning. Also, that as a person ages and enters into their seventh, eighth, and ninth decades, they don’t sleep as much or as well — and sleep is no longer linked so much to memory.
Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, reviewed 50 years of sleep research and discovered some interesting findings.
“We came across studies that showed that sleeping well in middle age predicted better mental functioning 28 years later.” Therefore, improving sleep early in life might delay, or even reverse, age-related changes in memory and thinking.
“It’s the difference between investing up front rather than trying to compensate later,” said Scullin. The article — “Sleep, Cognition, and Normal Aging: Integrating a Half Century of Multidisciplinary Research,” has been published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Scullin notes that the benefits of a sound night’s sleep for young adults are diverse and unmistakable. One example is that a particular kind of “deep sleep” called “slow-(brain)-wave-sleep” helps memory by taking pieces of a day’s experiences, replaying them and strengthening them for better recollection.
By the time people reach middle age, more sleep during the day, such as an afternoon nap, also helps people’s memory and protects against its decline — as long they don’t skimp on nighttime sleep.
“But as they grow older, people wake up more at night and have less deep sleep and dream sleep — both of which are important for overall brain functioning,” Scullin said.
Researchers’ extensive review began with studies as long ago as 1967, including more than approximately 200 studies measuring sleep and mental functioning. Participants ages 18 to 29 were categorized as young; ages 30 to 60 as middle-aged; and older than 60 as old.
Participants were asked how many hours they typically slept, how long it takes them to go to sleep, how often they wake in the middle of the night, and how sleepy they feel during the day.
The research also correlated results from numerous brain-wave studies and experiments dealing with sleep deprivation, napping, and sleep intervention, such as sleep medications.
Scullin noted that if a person lives 85 years, he or she may sleep nearly 250,000 hours — more than 10,000 full days.
“People sometimes disparage sleep as ‘lost’ time,” he said.
But even if the link between sleep and memory lessens with age, “sleeping well still is linked to better mental health, improved cardiovascular health, and fewer, less severe disorders and diseases of many kinds.”
Source: Baylor University/EurekAlert
New research finds that email phishing scams contain personal information presented in a manner that provokes a response.
In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University at Buffalo have found evidence that the incredible spread of email schemes is a result of their ability to appeal to victims.
The study, “Examining the impact of presence on individual phishing victimization,” was presented at the 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, held at the University of Hawaii.
Arun Vishwanath, professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, and co-author of the study, says “information-rich” emails include graphics, logos, and other brand markers that communicate authenticity.
“In addition,” he says, “the text is carefully framed to sound personal, arrest attention and invoke fear. It often will include a deadline for response for which the recipient must use a link to a spoof ‘response’ website. Such sites, set up by the phisher, can install spyware that data mines the victim’s computer for usernames, passwords, address books, and credit card information.
“We found that these information-rich lures are successful because they are able to provoke in the victim a feeling of social presence, which is the sense that they are corresponding with a real person,” Vishwanath says.
“‘Presence’ makes a message feel more personal, reduces distrust, and also provokes heuristic processing, marked by less care in evaluating and responding to it,” he says. “In these circumstances, we found that if the message asks for personal information, people are more likely to hand it over, often very quickly.
“In this study,” he says, “such an information-rich phishing message triggered a victimization rate of 68 percent among participants.
“These are significant findings that indicate the importance of developing anti-phishing interventions that educate individuals about the threat posed by richness and presence cues in emails,” he explains.
Researchers studied 125 undergraduate university students who were sent an experimental phishing email from a Gmail account prepared for use in the study. The message used a reply-to address and sender’s address, both of which included the name of the university.
The email was framed to emphasize urgency and invoke fear. It said there was an error in the recipients’ student email account settings that required them to use an enclosed link to access their account settings and resolve the problem.
They had to do so within a short time period, they were told, otherwise they would no longer have access to the account. In a real phishing expedition, the enclosed link would take them to an outside account/phishing site that would collect the respondent’s personal information.
Vishwanath says 49 participants replied to the phishing request immediately and another 36 replied after a reminder.
The respondents then completed a five-point scale that measured their use of systemic (critical thinking) and heuristic information processing in deciding what to do with the email. When a few other variables were factored in, the phishing attack had an overall success rate of 68 percent.
“With email becoming the dominant way of communicating worldwide,” Vishwanath says, “the phishing trend is expected to increase as technology becomes more advanced and phishers find new ways to appeal to their victims.
“While these criminals may not be easily stopped, understanding what makes us more susceptible to these attacks is a vital advancement in protecting Internet users worldwide.”
Source: University of Buffalo
The belief that social media platforms would improve the assessment of a community’s health or well-being has been promised for years.
A new study suggests the prophecy may have been fulfilled as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discover that Twitter can capture more information about heart disease risk than many traditional factors combined.
Previous studies have identified many factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease: traditional ones, like low income or smoking but also psychological ones, like stress.
Experts have long assumed that the psychological well-being of communities is important for physical health, but is hard to measure. Now, researchers believe Twitter can provide a window into a community’s collective mental state.
Investigators sifted through 148 million Tweets from 2009-2010, and compared language with county-by-county data from the CDC on heart disease death rates.
Researchers found that expressions of negative emotions such as anger, stress, and fatigue in a county’s tweets were associated with higher heart disease risk. On the other hand, positive emotions like excitement and optimism were associated with lower risk.
“In terms of psychological variables, the biggest thing we found that goes with higher heart disease is anger and hostility,” said Johannes Eichstaedt, lead author of the paper published in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers believe analysis of tweets may be a useful tool in epidemiology and for measuring the effectiveness of public-health interventions, as the language used reflects the psychological states of communities.
With billions of users writing daily about their daily experiences, thoughts and feelings, the world of social media represents a new frontier for psychological research. Such data could be an invaluable public health tool if able to be tied to real-world outcomes.
With this in mind, the researchers have long been studying the degree to which the language people use online represents their inner thoughts and feelings.
As there is no way to directly measure peoples’ inner emotional lives, the team drew on traditions in psychological research that glean this information from the words people use when speaking or writing.
Earlier research from the group has shown that such linguistic analysis can work as well as traditional questionnaires in assessing an individual’s personality.
“Getting this data through surveys is expensive and time consuming, but, more important, you’re limited by the questions included on the survey,” Eichstaedt said.
“You’ll never get the psychological richness that comes with the infinite variables of what language people choose to use.”
Having seen correlations between language and emotional states, the researchers went on to see if they could show connections between those emotional states and physical outcomes rooted in them.
They had an ideal candidate in coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.
“Psychological states have long been thought to have an effect on coronary heart disease,” said Margaret Kern, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
“For example, hostility and depression have been linked with heart disease at the individual level through biological effects. But negative emotions can also trigger behavioral and social responses; you are also more likely to drink, eat poorly, and be isolated from other people which can indirectly lead to heart disease.”
As a common cause of early mortality, public health officials carefully count when heart disease is identified as the underlying cause on death certificates.
They also collect meticulous data about possible risk factors, such as rates of smoking, obesity, hypertension, and lack of exercise. This data is available on a county-by-county level in the United States, so the research team aimed to match this physical epidemiology with their digital Twitter version.
In the study, researchers reviewed a set of public tweets made between 2009 and 2010. Established emotional dictionaries, as well as automatically generated clusters of words reflecting behaviors and attitudes, were used to analyze a random sample of tweets from individuals who had made their locations available.
There were enough tweets and health data from about 1,300 counties, which contain 88 percent of the country’s population.
Investigators found that negative emotional language and topics, such as words like “hate” or expletives, remained strongly correlated with heart disease mortality, even after variables like income and education were taken into account.
Positive emotional language showed the opposite correlation, suggesting that optimism and positive experiences, words like “wonderful” or “friends,” may be protective against heart disease.
“The relationship between language and mortality is particularly surprising,” said H. Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor. He believes a choice of angry words is reflective of community stress since the people tweeting angry words and topics are in general not the ones dying of heart disease.
“But that means if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.”
This finding fits into existing sociological research that suggests that the combined characteristics of communities can be more predictive of physical health than the reports of any one individual.
“We believe that we are picking up more long-term characteristics of communities,” said Lyle Ungar, Ph.D., a Pennsylvania professor of computer and information science.
“The language may represent the ‘drying out of the wood’ rather than the ‘spark’ that immediately leads to mortality. We can’t predict the number of heart attacks a county will have in a given timeframe, but the language may reveal places to intervene.”
Other caveats to the method’s predictive power include the social factors that influence what kinds of messages people choose to share on Twitter.
“If everyone is a little more positive on Twitter than they are in real life, however, we would still see variation from location to location, which is what we’re most interested in,” Schwartz said.
This variation could be used to marshal evidence of the effectiveness of public-health interventions on the community level, rather than on an individual level. The team’s findings show that these tweets are aggregating information about people that can’t be readily accessed in other ways.
“Twitter seems to capture a lot of the same information that you get from health and demographic indicators,” said Gregory Park, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Pennsylvania School of Arts and Science’s Department of Psychology.
“But it also adds something extra. So predictions from Twitter can actually be more accurate than using a set of traditional variables.”
Source: University of Pennsylvania
New research suggests that while being in a support group may help you lose weight, you may lose your new friends as you approach your weight goals.
Investigators reviewed popular weight loss groups and discovered that while the group setting is an ideal place to share advice and get support, the bond with the other members may diminish as you get closer to reaching your goals.
“When consumers start working toward a goal, they often feel uncertain about how to achieve the goal and see others at a similar stage as friends. They pass on helpful tips and cheer each other on.
“But once the goal is in sight, consumers feel more certain and believe they don’t need support from others, so they become distant and keep useful information to themselves,” write authors Szu-chi Huang (Stanford University), Susan M. Broniarczyk (University of Texas at Austin), Ying Zhang (Peking University), and Mariam Beruchashvili (California State University, Northridge).
In one study, the researchers analyzed group meetings and interviews with members of Weight Watchers. All of the members in an early stage of weight loss talked about companionship and felt close to and willing to help other members compared with fewer than half in the advanced stage (42 percent).
In contrast, the vast majority in an advanced stage of weight loss felt distant and were reluctant to share information with other members (79 percent), compared with less than half in the early stage (44 percent).
Since sharing information benefits consumers, this research can help support groups such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, or smoking cessation programs find ways to keep people engaged and working toward their goals.
The research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
“As consumers move from the early stages of pursuing a goal to a more advanced stage, they change from being friendly to decidedly distant. And the more consumers distance themselves from others with similar goals, the more likely they are to feel disengaged and even give up on their goals entirely,” the authors conclude.
When women view emotionally stimulating images, they tend to “feel” them more intensely than men, and are therefore more likely to remember them, according to a new large-scale study by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
As far as neutral images are concerned, however, there are no gender differences in emotional appraisal.
Previous research has found that emotions exert a strong influence on memory: the more emotional a situation is, the more likely it will be remembered.
It is also well-known that women often find emotional events to be more emotionally stimulating than do men. This raises the question as to whether women often do better than men in memory tests because of the way they process emotions.
Researchers from the University of Basel conducted a study to find out. They focused on determining the gender-dependent relationship between emotions, memory performance and brain activity.
In the study, which involved 3,398 test subjects from four sub-trials, the researchers were able to demonstrate that females rated emotional image content (especially negative content) as more emotionally stimulating than their male counterparts did. They found no gender differences, however, in how participants processed the neutral images.
In another memory test, female participants could freely recall significantly more images than the male participants. Surprisingly though, women had a particular advantage over men when recalling positive images.
“This would suggest that gender-dependent differences in emotional processing and memory are due to different mechanisms,” said study leader Dr. Annette Milnik.
Using data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 696 study participants, the researchers were also able to demonstrate that stronger appraisal of negative emotional image content by the female subjects was linked to increased brain activity in motoric regions.
“This result would support the common belief that women are more emotionally expressive than men,” said Dr. Klara Spalek, lead author of the study.
The study results also help to provide a stronger understanding of gender-related differences in information processing. This knowledge is important, as many neuropsychiatric disorders also demonstrate gender-specific differences.
The study is part of a research project led by professors Dominique de Quervain and Andreas Papassotiropoulos at the University of Basel, which aims to increase the understanding of neuronal and molecular mechanisms of human memory and thereby facilitate the development of new treatments.
The results are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Source: University of Basel
For many, a New Year’s resolution involves finding a different career path.
While searching for a job usually is not seen as exciting, new research finds that those who can look at the process as a self-growth opportunity will have more success finding their dream jobs.
Researchers from University of Missouri (MU) and Lehigh University found that job seekers with attitudes focused on “learning” from the job-seeking process experience the greatest success.
“Attitude means a lot,” said Daniel Turban, Ph.D., a professor of management at MU.
“In our study, we found that job seekers who have a ‘learning goal orientation’ or a natural disposition to learn from every situation in life, tend to be more successful in achieving their career goals. We also found that this disposition is not just influenced by genetics; it can be acquired.”
As published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Turban and Serge da Motta Veiga, Ph.D., of Lehigh focused on college seniors who were job hunting. The researchers surveyed approximately 120 individuals at different points during the job-seeking process.
People who had a strong learning goal orientation (LGO) reacted to failures by putting more intensity into the search process compared to job seekers who had a low LGO.
Additionally, when the process was going well, individuals with a high LGO maintained or slightly increased their intensity, while those who had a low LGO decreased their intensity.
“It’s not that people with a high LGO have less stress, but they deal with the stress better than others,” Turban said.
“With the right amount of stress, individuals with a high LGO increased their intensity, and as a result, were more successful with reaching their goals. We always think stress is bad, but that’s not the case.
“Feeling a moderate amount of stress can be very motivating.”
Searching for a job is a skill that can be developed as people with a low LGO can learn techniques or behaviors to help them improve their LGO so they handle stress and failures better.
“Job seekers can be trained to improve their LGO,” da Motta Veiga said.
“Such training could help them realize that the stress and failure they experience while searching for a job is not a bad thing, but instead represents an opportunity to learn from the process and determine how they can be successful at it.”
Turban and da Motta Veiga said that it’s best when job seekers spend time reflecting on how they are doing.
“The more intentional job seekers are about learning from the process, the more successful they are likely to be in their job searches,” Turban said.
New research suggest the simple act of eating a handful of walnuts a day may improve your memory.
Dr. Lenore Arab from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that eating walnuts may improve performance on cognitive function tests, including those for memory, concentration, and information processing speed.
He found that cognitive function was consistently greater in adult participants who consumed walnuts, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.
The finding is important as the aging of the baby boomer generation brings concerns of escalating diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
According to a 2012 World Health Organization article, the estimated number of new cases of dementia each year worldwide is nearly 7.7 million, and the number of people living with dementia worldwide is estimated at 35.6 million.
This number is predicted to double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.
It is important to note that the study format was not a cause and effect investigation. However, the cross-sectional study is the first large representative analysis of walnut intake and cognitive function.
Investigators matched available cognitive data to findings from multiple National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) surveys.
The NHANES surveys draw from a large sampling of the U.S. population, typically ages one to 90 years old. In this study, participants included adults ages 20-59 as well as 60 and over.
Arab and co-researcher Dr. Alfonso Ang found that study participants with higher walnut consumption performed significantly better on a series of six cognitive tests.
Dr. Arab noted, “It is exciting to see the strength of the evidence from this analysis across the U.S. population supporting the previous results of animal studies that have shown the neuroprotective benefit from eating walnuts; and it’s a realistic amount — less than a handful per day (13 grams).”
The study adds to a growing body of research surrounding walnuts’ positive effect on reducing cognitive impairment and overall brain health, which includes the possible beneficial effects of slowing or preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in mouse models.
Experts say that there are numerous possible active ingredients in walnuts that may be contributing factors in protecting cognitive functions.
Walnuts have a high antioxidant content (3.7 mmol/ounce), and they are the only nut that contains a significant source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (2.5 grams per ounce), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid with heart and brain-health benefits.
“It isn’t every day that research results in such simple advice: Eating a handful of walnuts daily as a snack, or as part of a meal, can help improve your cognitive health,” said Arab.
While most of us have been trained to never retaliate against a supervisor, a new study suggests a passive-aggressive response may be beneficial for some circumstances.
Ohio State researchers found that employees who had hostile bosses were better off on several measures if they returned the hostility.
The study found that giving it back to a boss allowed the employee to feel less like a victim. This, in turn, resulted in less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.
“Before we did this study, I thought there would be no upside to employees who retaliated against their bosses, but that’s not what we found,” said Bennett Tepper, lead author of the study and a professor of management and human resources.
“The best situation is certainly when there is no hostility. But if your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating. Employees felt better about themselves because they didn’t just sit back and take the abuse.”
Hostile bosses were ones who did things like yell at, ridicule, and intimidate their workers. Employees who returned hostility did it by ignoring their boss, acting like they didn’t know what their bosses were talking about, and giving just half-hearted effort.
“These are things that bosses don’t like and that fit the definition of hostility, but in a passive-aggressive form,” Tepper said. “I expect that you don’t have too many employees yelling and screaming at their bosses.”
The research involved data from two related studies that the researchers conducted. Study findings have been published online in the journal Personnel Psychology.
The first study included 169 people who completed two surveys by mail, seven months apart.
In the first survey, the respondents completed a 15-item measure of supervisor hostility developed by Tepper in 2000. It asked participants to rate how often their supervisors did things like ridiculing them and telling them that their “thoughts and feelings are stupid.”
The participants reported how often they retaliated by doing things like ignoring their supervisor.
Seven months later, the same respondents completed measures of job satisfaction, commitment to their employer, psychological distress, and negative feelings.
Results showed that when bosses were hostile — but employees didn’t retaliate — the workers had higher levels of psychological distress, less satisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their employer.
However, those employees who returned the hostility didn’t see those negative consequences, Tepper said.
But that study left unanswered the questions of why employees felt better if they returned their bosses’ hostility and whether retaliation hurt their careers. To answer these questions, researchers conducted a second study, which involved an online survey of 371 people from across the country who were surveyed three times, each three weeks apart.
The first survey asked respondents many of the same questions as the first study. The second survey asked questions designed to test if the employees felt like a victim in their relationship with their boss.
In addition to other questions, the third survey asked employees about career outcomes, such as whether they had been promoted and whether they were meeting their income goals.
Results showed that employees who turned the hostility back on their bosses were less likely to identify themselves as victims — and were then less likely to report psychological distress and more likely to be satisfied with and committed to their jobs.
Of course, fighting against your boss may seem like a risky career move. “In this second study, we wanted to see if employees who retaliated against their bosses also reported that their career was damaged by their actions,” Tepper said. “But in our survey anyway, employees didn’t believe their actions hurt their career.”
How can returning hostility not only help employees avoid psychological distress, but also allow them to remain committed to their employer and be more satisfied with their jobs?
Although this study didn’t examine that issue directly, Tepper said he believes employees who fight back may have the admiration and respect of co-workers.
“There is a norm of reciprocity in our society. We have respect for someone who fights back, who doesn’t just sit back and take abuse. Having the respect of co-workers may help employees feel more committed to their organization and happy about their job.”
Tepper said the message from these findings shouldn’t be that employees should automatically retaliate against a horrible boss.
“The real answer is to get rid of hostile bosses,” he said. “And there may be other responses to hostile bosses that may be more beneficial. We need to test other coping strategies.”
Source: Ohio State University
Canadian researchers have determined that a strong support network can actually make you healthier.
Jean-Philippe Gouin, Ph.D., a Concordia University psychology professor, followed a group of international students who experienced major social change following a move to Montreal.
Gouin found that those who managed to build a better support network were healthier overall. This conclusion was based on lower heart rates.
The study is published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Over a five-month period, participants responded to questionnaires that measured their social integration, as well as how lonely they felt. Gouin and his Concordia co-authors, Stephanie Fitzpatrick and Biru Zhou, also monitored participants’ heart rates to detect changes in what’s known as high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV).
Variability in heart rate is a marker of how well your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning.
“Other research has shown that individuals with a lower heart rate variability are at increased risk for the development of poor health, including greater risk for cardiac diseases. Therefore, decreases in heart rate variability are bad for you,” Gouin said.
The study showed that immigrants who were able to form friendships and get involved in new social networks during their first five months in Canada had increases in heart rate variability, while those who remained socially isolated over time showed a decrease.
“In the weeks and months that follow a major move, people often find it hard to make new friends and establish a solid social network,” said Gouin.
“This study shows that such prolonged social isolation can have a negative effect on physical health by impacting our parasympathetic functioning. That applies not just to international students but to anyone moving to a new country or city or anyone experiencing major social changes.”
Gouin believes the study shows that if you find yourself in a new environment you should reach out to other people. “The more quickly you manage to integrate socially in your new home, the healthier you’ll be. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth it,” he said.
Source: Concordia University