Archive for category Study Researchers

Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-Control


Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-ControlSelf-control is much easier talked about than accomplished, and that applies to improving diet, exercise and reducing stress.

Researchers point out that many of the long-term goals people strive for — like losing weight — require us to use self-control and forgo immediate gratification. But ignoring immediate desires in order to reap future benefits is often very hard to do.

In a new study, researchers Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., and Jessica Carnevale of Ohio State University propose that the way people subjectively understand, or construe, events can influence self-control.

Experts say that thinking about things abstractly and placing the items into broad categories (called high-level construal) allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the pushes and pulls of the immediate moment. This, in turn, makes us more sensitive to the big picture implications of our behavior and helps us become more consistent between our values and our behavior.

For example, a dieter choosing based on immediately apparent differences between the choices (low-level construal) might focus on taste and opt for a candy bar over an apple.

A dieter choosing on the basis of high-level construal, however, might view the choice in the broader terms of a choice between weight loss and hedonism, and opt for the apple.

Viewing the decision-making process in an abstract or construal process as a means to maximize self-control involves the integration of many scientific disciplines.

Researchers believe investigating the link between construal level and self-control may be a method to help society confront societal problems including obesity, addiction, and debt.

The research is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Depression Strongest Driver of Suicidal Thoughts in Soldiers, Vets


Current and former soldiers who seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) should be screened closely for major depression since the disorder is the single strongest driver of suicidal thinking, say authors of a new Canadian study.

Researchers evaluated 250 active duty Canadian Forces, RCMP members and veterans.  The study comes at a time when record numbers of suicides are being reported among American troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the number of suicides reported among Canadian forces last year reached its highest point since 1995.

In veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, about half also have symptoms of major depressive disorder during their lifetime, said the researchers.

But “the task of predicting which people may be at an increased risk of completing suicide is a complex and challenging care issue,” they said.

The study included 193 Canadian Forces vets, 55 active troops and two RCMP members referred to the Parkwood Hospital Operational Stress Injury Clinic in London, Ontario.

Soldiers and vets were screened for PTSD, major depression, anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse.  The depression questionnaire also included questions about suicidal thinking.

Study participants served an average of 15 years and had been deployed an average of three times. About one-fourth had been deployed to Afghanistan at least once. Ninety-two per cent were men.

Most met the criteria for “probable” PTSD, and almost three-fourths screened positive for probable major depression.

Overall, about one-fourth — 23 percent — said that they had experienced thoughts of self-harm, or that they would be better off dead, for several days over the prior two weeks.

Another 17 percent said they had those thoughts more than half of the days in the past two weeks; six percent reported feeling this way almost every day for the previous two weeks.

As found in other studies, the researchers showed that PTSD is linked to suicidal thoughts. But “what became the biggest predictor was, specifically, depression severity,” said Dr. Don Richardson, a consultant psychiatrist at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic and an adjunct professor in the department of psychiatry at Western University in London.

“It really stresses the importance that when you’re assessing someone for PTSD it’s also critical that you assess specifically for major depression,” Richardson said. “From our limited study, it was depression severity that was the most significant predictor of having suicidal ideation.”

The concern is that soldiers seeking treatment for military-related trauma might not receive aggressive therapy for depression. Instead, the focus might be more focused on PTSD and exposure therapy.

“There’s potentially a lot of people out there who are suffering who might not be aware that there are effective treatments, and that there are clinics available across Canada that specialize in military trauma,” said Richardson.

Source:  The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry

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Stress Changes Learning in the Brain


Stress Changes Learning in the BrainA new experiment from German scientists suggests stress invokes our brain to use different and more complex processes during learning.

In the study, cognitive psychologists Drs. Lars Schwabe and Oliver Wolf discovered that the presence or absence of stress is associated with use of different brain regions and different strategies in the learning process.

Stress appears to make the brain work harder and use a more complex approach when learning. Study findings are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers discovered that non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling.

“These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Schwabe.

In the study researchers analyzed the data from 59 subjects. Two groups were assigned with one group asked to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes (while being observed by video surveillance).

As expected, this activity stressed the subjects with data collected and confirmed by hormone assays.

The other group was asked to immerse one of their hands in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed a task called weather prediction. The task involved having subjects look at playing cards with different symbols and then using the cards to predict which combinations of cards forecast rain and which sunshine.

Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task.

During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.

Researchers found that both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. However, the way in which they learned the task varied.

Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy.

The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe – the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory.

Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy.

They made their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words.

In this group of stress participants, brain scans showed that the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated — a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning.

“Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus,” concluded Schwabe. “So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behavior — which saves the learning achievement.”

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum

Abstract of the brain with key photo by shutterstock.

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Regular Use of Computer Program Improves Seniors’ Memory


Regular Use of Computer Program Improves Seniors MemoryA new study by UCLA researchers finds that regular use of computerized memory and language training can help seniors.

Age-related memory decline affects approximately 40 percent of older adults. The cognitive decline is characterized by self-perception of memory loss and a decline in memory performance.

This was one of the first studies to assess the cognitive effects of a computerized memory training program. Researchers found that dedicated use of the program significantly improved memory and language skills among older adults.

In the study, researchers followed 59 participants with an average age of 84. Participants were recruited from local retirement communities.

Seniors were divided into two groups. The first group used a brain fitness program for an average of 73, 20-minute sessions, over a six-month period; the second group performed 45 20-minute sessions times during the same period.

The first group demonstrated significantly higher improvement in memory and language skills, compared to the second group.  Researchers said the study’s findings confirm that brain fitness tools may help improve language and memory.

Experts say that computer-aided training may ultimately help protect individuals from the cognitive decline associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies have shown that engaging in mental activities can help improve memory, but little research has been done to determine whether the numerous brain fitness games and memory training programs on the market are effective in improving memory.

Source: UCLA

Elderly woman on a computer photo by shutterstock.

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Honesty May Be Best Policy for Mental, Physical Health


Honesty May Be Best Policy for Mental, Physical HealthA provocative new study suggests that telling the truth when tempted to lie can significantly improve a person’s mental and physical health.

University of Notre Dame researchers presented their study, called the “Science of Honesty,” at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention.

“Recent evidence indicates that Americans average about 11 lies per week. We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health,” said lead author Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D.

“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health.”

In the study, researchers evaluated 110 people over a 10 week period. Thirty-four percent of the sample were adults in the community and 66 percent were college students. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 71 years, with an average age of 31.

During the investigation, approximately half the participants were instructed to stop telling major and minor lies for the 10 weeks. The other half served as a control group that received no special instructions about lying.

Both groups came to the laboratory each week to complete health and relationship measures and to take a polygraph test assessing the number of major and white lies they had told that week.

Researchers discovered that over the course of the study, the association between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group.

For example, when participants in the no-lie group told three fewer white lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced on average about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches.

In contrast, when control group members told three fewer white lies, they experienced two fewer mental-health complaints and about one less physical complaint. The pattern was similar for major lies, Kelly said.

Compared to the control group, participants in the more truthful group told significantly fewer lies across the 10-week study, and by the fifth week, they saw themselves as more honest, Kelly said.

When participants across both groups lied less in a given week, they reported their physical health and mental health to be significantly better that week. Researchers discovered that a week with less lies was also correlated with improved personal relationships and enhanced social networks.

At the end of the 10 weeks, participants in the no-lie group described their efforts to keep from lying to others in their day-to-day interactions.

Some said they realized they could simply tell the truth about their daily accomplishments rather than exaggerate, while others said they stopped making false excuses for being late or failing to complete tasks, Kelly said. Others said that they learned to avoid lying by responding to a troubling question with another question to distract the person, she said.

Because the findings are new they will be submitted for scientific review and publication later this year, Kelly said.

Source: American Psychological Association

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Training Can Improve Spatial Skills


Training Can Improve Spatial Skills New research determines that spatial skills critical for science, technology, engineering and mathematics can be taught.

The ability to improve spatial skills and whether such improvement lasts or transfers to new tasks has been debatable in the scientific community. In the new study, researchers reviewed and aggregated 217 published studies on educational interventions to improve spatial thinking.

Experts say the research effort is the first comprehensive analysis of credible studies on such interventions.

Spatial skills include the aptitude to do tasks such as putting together puzzles.

In the study, David Uttal and fellow researchers at Northwestern University with Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple reviewed the studies that assessed the ability to improve spatial thinking.

“There are limitations involved with looking at individual studies one by one. What we found when we brought together this large body of literature on training effects and analyzed it was a very powerful message, said Newcombe.

“People of all ages can improve at all types of spatial skills through training, period.”

Investigators believe the results from this new meta-analysis affirm that spatial skills can be improved.

The researchers found that spatial skills are indeed malleable and that spatial training transfers to other fields.

“Our findings have significant real world implications by showing that training can have an impact on a technological workforce. With the right training more high school students will be able to consider engineering and other scientific fields as a career option,” said Newcombe.

One example of the type of training that can increase spatial abilities is having physics students use three-dimensional representations.

Video game playing also increases spatial skills. “Perhaps the most important finding from this meta-analysis is that several different forms of training can be highly successful,” the authors say.

“Our hope is that our findings on how to train spatial skills will ultimately lead to highly effective ways to improve STEM performance,” said Uttal, the lead author on the study.

In the review, researchers discovered gender and age are not impediments to learning or improving spatial skills and that even a small amount of training can improve spatial reasoning and have long-lasting impact.

The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.

Source: Temple University

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Social Networking for Jobs May Add to Income Inequality


Social Networks Help Americans Find Good JobsSocial networking for vocational prospecting appears to be more effective in the United States than in Germany.

In a new study, researchers from North Carolina State University discover that while informal networks help both European and American job-seekers, networks in America help job-seekers find higher paying positions.

But one downside is that the practice may lead to economic inequality.

“It is interesting to note that the open market system in the United States, with minimal labor regulations, actually sees people benefiting more from patronage — despite the expectation that open markets would value merit over social connections,” said doctoral student Richard Benton, who co-authored the research.

In the study, researchers examined survey data from the U.S. and Germany to compare the extent to which people find new jobs through “informal recruitment.”

Informal recruitment or networking occurs when a person who is not looking for a new job is approached with a job opportunity through social connections.

The study shows that, on average, informal recruitment is significantly more common in Germany, where approximately 40 percent of jobs are filled through informal recruitment — as opposed to approximately 27 percent of jobs in the United States.

However, the jobs people find through informal recruitment in the U.S. are much more likely to be high-wage managerial positions. Specifically, the odds that a job will be filled via networking increase by two percent for every dollar of hourly wage that the job pays.

For example, the odds that jobs paying $40 per hour ($80,000 per year) will be filled through informal recruitment are about 66 percent better than the odds that a minimum-wage job ($7.25 per hour) will be filled through informal recruitment.

By comparison, the researchers found that wages in Germany did not appear to be linked to how workers found their jobs.

“Ultimately, this suggests that U.S. economic institutions offer greater rewards to sponsorship and nepotism than what we see elsewhere, which could help to explain why inequality is so extreme here,” said Dr. Steve McDonald, an associate professor of sociology at NC State and lead author of the paper.

The study can be found online in the journal Social Forces.

Source: North Carolina State University

Man interviewing for a job photo by shutterstock.

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