18 Oct 2017

Julianne Holt-Lunstad Probes Loneliness, Social Connections

Julianne Holt-Lunstad Probes Loneliness, Social Connections
APA member Julianne Holt-Lunstad studies social connectivity and the the growing epidemic of loneliness. (Photo: Mark A. Philbrick)

Not many people willingly cop to being lonely. It carries with it a social stigma of pathos that, at the very least, may hurt your self-esteem.

But what if it can damage much more than that? What if it carries the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? What if social isolation is twice as harmful as obesity and as lethal as alcoholism?

Today, researchers from across the sciences are asking, “Can loneliness kill you?”

Recent public debate over this issue has centered largely on the isolating influence of social media on creating what has been referred to as a “loneliness epidemic” in the culture. However, APA member and social-connectedness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, warns that the problem goes much deeper and that substantial evidence of it predates the technology boom.

“There have indeed been dramatic shifts in how people are connecting and interacting socially now,” Holt-Lunstad says, adding: “But the majority of the epidemiological data we have that established this as a risk factor for premature mortality was conducted before widespread use of most of these technologies.”

If anyone understands the gravity of the public health threat it poses—and the difficulty of getting it on the public health agenda—it is she.

Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, was the first U.S. researcher to publish a large-scale analysis of studies establishing poor social support as a major contributor to morbidity.

“I remember thinking early in my career, ‘Why doesn’t everyone else recognize this?’” says Holt-Lunstad, who read early studies about social connection while a graduate student. “Is it perhaps because the evidence isn’t as strong as I think it is? Or because it is being measured in a variety of different ways … that don’t give it that level of precision the medical community demands? That’s when I decided to do that first meta-analysis.”

Her trailblazing 2010 study, Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review (PLOS Medicine), blew the doors open on links between social connectivity and mortality and generated buzz in the media as well as in the medical establishment.

Significantly, it showed that people with strong social bonds are 50 percent less likely to die over a given period of time than those who have fewer social connections.

The meta-analysis combined data from148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people worldwide. The research team developed extensive coding for variables that could be weighted to get the overall magnitude effect of social connection on health—no matter the sample sizes of the studies.

These findings were confirmed with a follow-up meta-analysis published in 2015, which expanded the sample to more than 3.4 million individuals worldwide and teased out more nuances.

“We wanted to know: Does it vary by country (It does not!)? Does it vary by cause of death (Doesn’t matter!)? Is it stronger for men vs. women (Equally strong!)?” says Holt-Lunstad emphatically. “This was a snapshot of real life, right? With implications for real-life health outcomes.”

Developing interventions to tackle this public health threat has a host of challenges—not the least of which is fine-tuning our understanding of the quantity and quality of social relationships and their impact on long-term health and morbidity.

For starters, what are the differences between isolation and loneliness?

“The way they are conceptualized and measured is quite different,” says Holt-Lunstad. Isolation is defined more by the actual size of one’s network or the frequency of contact, she says, whereas loneliness “is thought to be more of a subjective experience or perception of isolation, a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of connection.”

Further, she observes: “Someone can be lonely but not isolated, or isolated but not lonely.”

These distinctions are important when designing measures and interventions for each. One of the ways Holt-Lunstad has attacked these issues is to gather data on biological pathways connected to the experience of social connectivity.

“Participants come to my lab and I hook them up to equipment to look at their cardiovascular functioning. I’ve also taken saliva and blood samples to look at the neuroendocrine piece. I measured the physiology among those who had more or less supportive people in their network. In some studies, I asked them to bring in a friend and measured their physiology while interacting with them.”

The results from this multidisciplinary research have yielded some fascinating information:

Holt-Lunstad’s life and work intersected perilously in 2011 when her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The working mother of two suddenly found herself dependent on friends to help her keep the family running while supporting her hospitalized husband.

Fiercely independent by nature, she says it was “an eye-opener to me of just how hard it is to accept support.”

“One of these social barriers is that we value our independence so highly,” she reflects. “Needing others is viewed as a weakness rather than a conceptualization of interdependence—that we can rely on others and they can rely on us.”

Fortunately, her husband made a recovery, and Holt-Lunstad used her experiences to galvanize her mission to get the issue of social connectivity even more forcefully onto the public health agenda.

She recently testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, where she outlined the greater social changes that underpin today’s loneliness epidemic. This summer, she and her cohorts published something of a manifesto in the American Psychologist http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-amp0000103.pdf, where they offered supporting data and detailed recommendations for advancing social connection as a U.S. public health priority.

“It’s incredibly gratifying that it’s getting the attention that it deserves but of course there’s still a long way to go,” she says. “If you look at CDC’s Social Detriments of Health it’s very peripheral, which is surprising since we know there is substantial evidence of lifestyle factors influencing health.

“It may sound a bit audacious,” she continues, “but I’ve been thinking about how we might have consensus guidelines around social connection, as we do around physical activity and sleep. If we expect the public to take this seriously for their health it seems we need something like that so they know what to do and how well they’re doing.

“Of course, these would need to be evidence-based and subject to periodic review as the science progresses, just as nutritional guidelines are,” she continues, “But by having these guidelines it could have a cascading effect on public health.”

Social-connectivity assessment and intervention could become part of medical education and the conversations doctors have with their patients at well-checks, she says. It could become part of K–12 health education, helping children to be more inclusive, build community and improve their mental health.

“When we look at the increase in anxiety and depression in kids and teens, social-connectedness interventions could potentially help reduce those,” says Holt-Lunstad. “I don’t want to claim this will solve all the world’s problems, but it could potentially help and it may be one of the root causes of some of our pressing public health issues.”

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18 Oct 2017

Navigating from Graduate School to Early Career Booklet

Navigating from Graduate School to Early Career Booklet

Traversing the landscape from graduate student to early career psychologist can be challenging. This two-volume series offers useful tools and advice for those on the journey. The first volume includes articles on how to succeed in the early years of graduate school, including how to find a mentor, how to pay for graduate education, and how to improve your writing and presentation skills. The second volume focuses on the later years of graduate school, with advice on how to ask for more responsibility, how to earn research funding and how to make the transition into the workforce.

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11 Oct 2017

How Much Do Today’s Psychologists Earn?

How Much Do Today’s Psychologists Earn?

The latest salary report from APA finds that psychologists in the middle of the country outearn their peers

In May, APA's Center for Workforce Studies (CWS) released its most comprehensive salary report to date. The report finds that the median annual salary for U.S. psychologists in 2015 was $85,000, but that salaries varied widely by subfield and geographic region.

Most psychologists (57.4 percent) earned between $60,000 and $120,000, 20 percent earned less than $60,000, and 22.7 percent earned more than $120,000. Those in industrial/organizational psychology were at the top of that range—the median annual salary for I/O psychologists was $125,000. Those with a degree in educational psychology, at the other end of the spectrum, earned a median salary of $75,000.

Want to earn more? Move to the Middle Atlantic region, where psychologists earned, on average, $108,000 per year. Psychologists in the East South Central region, in contrast, earned $59,000 per year.Psychologist salaries

Meanwhile, women continued to earn less than men ($80,000 compared with $91,000), white psychologists earned more ($88,000) than racial/ethnic minority psychologists ($71,000), and those with a PhD earned more ($85,000) than those with a PsyD ($75,000). (To read more about the gender pay gap, see the article "Women Outnumber Men in Psychology, But Not in the Field's Top Echelons" in the July/August Monitor.)

The new salary report is APA's most representative look yet at psychologists' earning power, according to Luona Lin, a CWS research associate. In previous reports, the association's salary data came from member surveys, but APA members skew older and less racially and ethnically diverse than the profession as a whole.

The new report instead analyzes data from the 2015 National Survey of College Graduates, a nationally representative survey conducted every two years by the U.S. Census Bureau on behalf of the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. The CWS report pulls the survey's data on full-time working psychologists—those with a doctorate or professional degree in psychology who work at least 35 hours per week.

The NSF survey was revised with a new sample design in 2010, adding a fresh level of detail for CWS to examine.

"Because this is a new data set to look at salaries in psychology, we have a lot of variables that weren't available before," Lin says. For example, for professional service positions, she and her colleagues were able to analyze salaries by employment sector (public, private, nonprofit) and employer size. For psychologists in management, they could break out salaries by a person's number of direct reports. And for researchers, they could examine salaries by type of institution and research activity.

There were a few surprises in the data. For example, salaries were highest in the Middle ­Atlantic region, which includes cities with a high cost of living, such as New York and Philadelphia. But salaries were also relatively high in the Midwest—$92,000 in the West North Central area (which stretches from Kansas to Minnesota), and $91,000 in the West South Central area (which includes Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana).

"That was kind of surprising at first glance," Lin says.

But, she adds, the explanation might lie in a 2014 CWS report on job ads, which found a high concentration of open positions in the center of the country.

"We haven't done a causal analysis for this, but we think it might be highly relevant—the salaries [in the Midwest] could be driven higher by demand."

Lin says that interest in the report has been high, and that CWS staff plan to produce new salary reports biannually when NSF releases new survey data.

To read the full report and access the underlying data, go to www.apa.org/workforce/publications/2015-salaries/index.aspx.

By Lea Winerman


This article was originally published in the September 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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05 Oct 2017

How to Avoid Student Loan Consolidation and Forgiveness Scams

How to Avoid Student Loan Consolidation and Forgiveness Scams

Out of all the things I've encountered in running a personal finance site and helping people tackle their student loan debt, one of the most frustrating is hearing stories of readers who have been charged outrageous fees or have had money stolen from them by student loan scammers.

Americans currently hold over $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, and the average student loan balance for borrowers has grown from $20,00 to $34,000 in just ten years, according to an April study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

While most people see this as a major problem, the unfortunate reality is that others see it as an opportunity to make or steal money from good, hard-working people.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can spot student loan scammers from a mile away and avoid the headache altogether.

Before we go on, it is important to understand that there are legitimate consolidation companies and loan forgiveness programs out there.

Consolidation is always free through the Department of Education (which we will discuss below). Always. However, there are companies out there that offer to handle the process for you as a service.

If you are someone that doesn't have time to fill out your own application or feel overwhelmed by the process, there are legitimate companies that will complete the Department of Education paperwork for you while charging an application fee.

What's the difference between student loan consolidation and forgiveness, and do you need either one?

Many student loan holders mistakenly mix these two terms up, but they have very distinct implications for your student loans. Let's start by defining the two below:

Student Loan Consolidation

 

This is the process of combining all of your existing student loans together into a larger loan with one payment. Your interest rate will be the average of all the loans included in the consolidation. Consolidations are available for most types of federal student loans, and many private lenders offer consolidation options as well.

Federal Student Loan Forgiveness

This is the process of having your remaining student loan balance erased after a specific amount of time and regular loan payments while working in a particular field specified by the Department of Education.

The most common programs are the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program (often called the "Obama Student Loan Forgiveness program”) and the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program.

Federal student loan forgiveness programs are designed to entice student loan borrowers to work in areas of high need and in government jobs that may not be as desirable as public sector jobs.

Common types of student loan scams and how to identify them

Fast "relief"

The most important thing to understand about student loan scammers is that they are trying to prey on borrowers who are desperate and feel trapped by their debt. Typically, consolidation and forgiveness scams center around being able to provide instant "relief" for borrowers.

Here's the reality—nothing is fast about either one of these processes. If you ever come into contact with a suspicious company that wants to provide an instant solution for your student loans, walk away and don't look back.

Student loan forgiveness programs can take as long as ten years and require 120 consecutive payments. Consolidation typically takes anywhere from 30–90 days.

If it says instant, it's probably a scam.

Fake government seals

In an effort to build trust with potential scam victims or just flat-out confuse them, it's very common for student loan scam companies to include seals in their company logo that look very similar to a government seal.

Another trick they use is to create website URLs with a .us at the end or "federal" somewhere in their company name.

While it can be tricky to wade through what is legitimate and what isn't on the internet, here are a few things to note:

  1. If the site you are looking at seems like it could be a federal website, but you aren't sure, look for fine print. You'll usually be able to find language that explicitly states that the company is not a federal entity or related to the government in any way.
  2. If the website looks like a federal entity but doesn't have a ".gov" domain name, it's probably a scam. ".gov" domains are extremely hard to receive and require special applications and an approval process.
  3. If they are charging money, they aren't a federal entity. Again, consolidation and forgiveness programs are always free through the Department of Education.

Aggressive advertising

While this doesn't always mean that the company in question is a scammer, it does mean that the fees they will charge for filling out consolidation paperwork for you could be exorbitant (Google ads aren't cheap on highly competitive terms like "student loan consolidation companies”).

It's important to remember that Federal entities do not advertise consolidation or forgiveness programs on any of the major search engines like Google or Bing.

Auto calls or texting

This approach has been around for a few years, but in the past six months or so has ramped up tremendously. You may get a phone call or text that says your loans have been "flagged for forgiveness" and that you need to call right away to take advantage of the opportunity.

I get these messages all the time, and I paid off my student loans years ago.

Most likely, the company contacting you is doing it illegally. The goal is either to charge you a crazy fee, get your money, and then disappear—OR to steal private information from you like your social security number or bank account information.

The government will not call or text you about "flagged" student loans. Never give your personal information to anyone that contacts you about your student loans without digging deeper and researching first.

Where to go for legitimate information on student loan forgiveness and consolidation?

If you don't get anything else out of this article, please remember this:

The federal government does not, has not, and will not charge you to apply for student loan consolidation or loan forgiveness programs. The best source for official consolidation and forgiveness information is always the Department of Education's website, Studentaid.ed.gov.

The Department of Education’s website is packed with useful information about the various student loan forgiveness programs, consolidation forms, and even a page to report scams and fraudulent activity here.

If you're ever in a desperate situation with your student loans, don't panic, and be skeptical of any offers for quick help. It may take time and probably won't be an easy process, but there are always legitimate ways to get your debt under control without giving out your personal information or large sums of money.

-- Bobby Hoyt is a former high school teacher who paid off $40,000 of student loan debt in a year and a half. He now runs the personal finance site MillennialMoneyMan.com full-time, and has been seen on CNBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Reuters, Marketwatch, and many other major publications.

The opinions and advice expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those held by the American Psychology Association (APA).

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04 Oct 2017

Boosting Productivity

Boosting Productivity

Research identifies small changes that lead to big improvements in performance

When Larry Rosen, PhD, talks to people who want to improve their productivity, he zeroes in on the importance of minimizing interruptions. Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, goes as far as to suggest that people put up a "do not disturb" sign when they need to focus on a task.

While this may not be plausible for everyone, Rosen's studies have shown how being distracted can become a bad habit that ultimately decreases our effectiveness at work or in school.

Fortunately, he and other psychology researchers have identified new ways to help people overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of their productivity, whether they are personal habits or environmental challenges. Here are some of those findings.

Grow your attention span

Even though technology can empower us to accomplish things faster, Rosen has found that those benefits can disappear when digital distractions are so readily available.

In one study, Rosen asked 260 middle school, high school and university students to study for 15 minutes in their homes. He found that participants averaged less than 6 minutes of studying before switching tasks, most often due to technology distractions—phones vibrating, new email alerts or instant message notifications, as well as students' "self-interruptions" to check electronic devices (Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2013).

While it can be tempting to think that dealing with these messages is productive, Rosen says this is a false sense of effectiveness. "We may think we are multitasking, but we are really task-switching," he says. "These interruptions take us away from the task at hand." The original task becomes less salient in our brains, and when we return, we waste time trying to remember what we were thinking when we left, Rosen explains.

To increase attention span and productivity, one of Rosen's solutions is the "technology break." He encourages students and workers to give themselves a couple of minutes to check alerts, texts and other messages after 15 minutes of undistracted work. The best way to stay focused is silencing the phone, turning it face down to avoid seeing visual notifications, turning off email alerts and closing distracting websites, Rosen says.

"Once you learn how to work for 15 minutes, start increasing the time before taking a technology break," Rosen says.

Taking short breaks not only satisfies the technology fix, but it also allows us to maintain focus, according to a study conducted by Alejandro Lleras, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He found that participants who took a short break while focusing on a visual task maintained the same level of performance for 40 minutes, but performance declined for those who didn't take any breaks (Cognition, Vol. 118, No. 3, 2010).

"We know that after about 30 minutes, concentration starts to decrease, so it's important to take small breaks to stay focused on your main task."

The results also showed that the breaks can be surprisingly short—only a couple of seconds for some tasks—to achieve this effect.

Write out your goals

Many people who work are familiar with the idea of setting goals for themselves, but achieving those goals can be elusive. Research is showing that establishing a habit of writing about goals can boost performance.

Cheryl Travers, PhD, a professor at the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, asked students to identify areas where they needed to improve, such as raising a grade in a class or increasing concentration while studying. The students were asked to visualize desired outcomes and outline how they could put their goals into practice.

Then the students kept diaries for three months to reflect on their goal progress. For example, students could write down what happened as they attempted to make a change in a particular situation, what worked well or not well, what could have been done better and actions they could take going forward. Travers found that the reflective goal-related writing had a significant impact on their ability to perform better academically (British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2015).

"The act of writing something down seems to make us accountable to a goal," Travers says. "It also helps people to write their way through a problem when they encounter barriers."

By writing about successes and failures and thinking about strategies to overcome difficulties, students gained confidence in themselves and developed academic self-efficacy, Travers says. What was particularly interesting was the evidence showing that academic performance improved even for students who set nonacademic, "softer" goals, such as "increase my assertiveness" or "decrease stress."

Travers is now collecting diaries for managers in organizations, and she will be studying whether this reflective goal setting improves their effectiveness as leaders. "This process allows people to essentially become self-coaches because they are continually evaluating goal outcomes and becoming more self-aware about leader behaviors."

Get together

The idea of fitting in another meeting may seem counter-productive for people working in group settings, but research suggests that taking time to debrief as a team can improve productivity in the long run.

Michaela Schippers, PhD, a professor of behavior and performance management at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, studied teams working in a health-care environment. She found that the groups that met regularly to evaluate work processes were much more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems than groups that did not meet regularly. Her work has shown how this team reflexivity (reflecting on team functioning) can significantly improve work performance levels (Journal of Management, Vol.41, No. 3, 2015; Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2013).

"Workers should have regular debriefings, like in the military, but the purpose is not to point out what people are doing wrong," Schippers says. "Instead, the group can brainstorm how to improve as a team, ideally with a facilitator who is leading the meeting."

In the study, the reflexive teams talked about issues such as decreasing waiting times for patients, improving patient record systems and developing a more effective appointment system.

"Our work showed that it was very important for teams that are particularly busy to meet regularly to debrief, because these teams benefited most from the innovative improvements," Schippers says. "The meetings gave them space to think collectively about what could be changed."

Get out of the chair

Researchers are finding that employees with stand-­capable workstations may be more productive than their seated counterparts. Mark Benden, PhD, a professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M School of Public Health, studied two groups of call center employees over six months. One group sat at traditional desks and the other group at stations that enabled workers to elevate their tables whenever they wanted to stand. Benden found that those with stand-capable workstations stood about 1.5 hours longer per day and were 42 percent more productive than those who worked at seated desks. Productivity was measured by how many successful calls the workers completed per hour (IIE Transaction on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, Vol. 4, No. 2-3, 2016).

"By being up more of the time, we improve blood flow to the brain and circulation to the body, and these things combine to make the brain more active and engaged," Benden says.

Research also suggests that it is important for people to avoid "static standing" in one place, he says. The best stand-­capable workstations have foot rails that allow workers to take weight off of one side of the body. If it's not possible to get this type of workstation, workers should take breaks to walk around and get out of the chair, Benden says.

Further reading

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World 
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L., 2016

Managing Motivation: A Manager's Guide to Diagnosing and Improving Motivation 
Pritchard R.D., & Ashwood, E.L., 2008

Evidence-Based Productivity Improvement: A Practical Guide to the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System 
Pritchard, R.D., Weaver, S.J., & Ashwood, E.L., 2012

Future Time Perspective and Promotion Focus as Determinants of Intraindividual Change in Work Motivation 
Kooij, D.T., Bal, P.M., & Kanfer, R., Psychology and Aging, 2014

By Heather Stringer


This article was originally published in the September 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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02 Oct 2017

Kit Yarrow is Unlocking Consumer Shopping Behavior

Kit Yarrow is Unlocking Consumer Shopping Behavior
Kit Yarrow
APA Fellow Kit Yarrow is a well-known researcher on consumer behavior.

Kit Yarrow, PhD, does not believe retail is dead, far from it. Consumer psychology has changed dramatically in the past decade, though, and Yarrow predicts the retailers who survive will be those who appreciate their shoppers’ potent desire for an engaging and validating experience in the marketplace.

Yarrow is a well-known researcher on consumer behavior, a popular speaker, a longtime academic and the author of two books: “Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail” (Jossey-Bass, 2009) with Jane O’Donnell and “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy” (Jossey-Bass, 2014). She has blogged for magazines like Money, Time and Psychology Today, among other publications; her most popular article was for Money magazine in 2016, The Science of Why We Buy Clothes We Don’t Wear.

Yarrow identifies “three shifts in our world, three ways in which we as people have changed noticeably in the past 5 years or so, and, because of those shifts, how our needs have changed in terms of what we feel we need to add to our lives.”

First, technology is now embedded in daily activities, our phones and laptops tether us to one another in ways that are captivating but superficial, and ultimately unsatisfactory. “We feel more disconnected, so we use brands and products to feel seen and heard, and to reconnect with others,” she says.

Second, “there’s more emotionality, with elevated levels of anger and anxiety,” in part because people may not feel as safe or accepted as they once did. “People shop differently and want different things when they are more emotional. A hassle feels doubly so.” Retailers and manufacturers both need to make it easier for shoppers to understand the benefits of their products, and to streamline the purchasing process, Yarrow says.

Third, the past several years have seen a “trend toward individualism,” which means people are no longer as likely to make purchases as part of a group. Even young people are more willing to pass up “the cool item,” Yarrow says, taking the time to find one-of-a-kind pieces, sifting through thrift stores to put together a distinctive look.

“There’s no way to succeed in retail today without understanding consumer psychology,” she says. “Consumers actually don’t want to shop online. They want to go to stores, but not the way they are now.” Shoppers like to feel connected with other people like themselves, but “they don’t want to trawl through a mall and see the same thing in every store.” Yarrow says stores mostly run by “nimble younger retailers” willing to display interesting items, not necessarily keeping them in stock, and engaging their customers at every turn are where things are headed. Shoppers can touch and feel things in these stores, try them on, photograph and post them on social media, and then have them delivered from the warehouse to their homes. Yarrow singled out Betabrand, an online retailer with a store in San Francisco, where designs are often crowd-sourced and crowd-funded. Fans who vote for a design that makes it into production get a discount on the finished product.

Does this mean the end to department and traditional retail stores is at hand?  “These stores are part of our American culture, and I’m rooting for them, but they are going to have to change or die.” They must understand, Yarrow says, the consumer is in charge now.

As for online retailers, they need to “make it easy to navigate their sites, and offer opportunities to see what other shoppers are looking at and buying to create a more social environment,” she says.

In her research, Yarrow does not use focus groups, where people are invited to share their opinions of products, because she believes the real decision making about what to buy or not to buy does not occur at the conscious level.

“It’s more about how people feel than what they think,” she says.

Instead, Yarrow conducts a type of ethnography, spending time with people she often recruits through social media, going through their closets, “shopping along” on trips to stores and riding home with them after a successful, or not-so-successful, shopping trip.

“That’s where I get the goods—in the car,” she says. “People say the most wonderful things when they’re done shopping and they’re focused on the road. That’s when they can go inside themselves and help me understand why they passed this up, or bought that, how it’s related to the rest of their lives, what it all means.”

Marketers and manufacturers often fund Yarrow’s research, and sometimes are surprised that she is advising “the enemy,” but she says, “I have never worked for a company that has bad intentions. They want to make better products, and I can easily support what they are doing. No company lives on one-time purchases. If they don’t deliver, they will fail. I don’t think marketers are the enemy, and I never will.”

As Yarrow sees it, her training in clinical psychology is alive and well in her work. “I yearn to talk to consumers,” she says.

Yarrow did not set out to be psychologist.  She studied journalism in undergraduate school before deciding to become a clinical psychologist. She went to graduate school at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., where the need to keep up with tuition pushed Yarrow to teach an undergraduate marketing class as an adjunct at nearby Golden Gate University (GGU) in San Francisco—the serendipitous start to her life’s work.

“I was finishing up my psychology internships when I realized I loved the research, the teaching, the assessment. That’s where my heart was,” she says. “All of a sudden, I switched.”

When a full-time position opened in the GGU marketing department, Yarrow jumped at it. “I found a way to bring in psychology by doing research in consumer behavior.” She also taught undergraduate psychology classes.

In 1992, with the encouragement of the administration, Yarrow and six colleagues founded GGU’s graduate psychology department, which Yarrow chaired for nearly 25 years. She is a professor emerita now and exploring publishing her latest research in articles or another book.

“Just like everybody else I know, I did not follow a direct path,” she says.

Yarrow started her research and writing career 20 years ago—only after she was told she would have to start publishing if she wanted to get tenure at GGU.

“I’m so grateful for that admonishment,” she says. “I had to go deep. I started it, and then I got a nice grant to do more research, and now it’s the thing I do most. I live to know why. If you look at ‘the glass of Kit,’ it’s three-quarters ‘why.’ That’s the reason I’m a professor instead of a clinical psychologist.”

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02 Oct 2017

Using Objective Data to Improve Performance

Using Objective Data to Improve Performance

Psychologists are using biofeedback to help clients identify and change their physical responses to stress and more

When Denver sport and performance psychologist Steve Portenga, PhD, first started providing therapy to athletes, he taught them breathing and relaxation exercises to practice at home. But he often doubted whether the athletes were doing their homework correctly, if at all.

"I'd ask them how their relaxation went over the past week and was getting answers like, ‘Oh, yeah...right.'" he says. The replies left him thinking, "You didn't do it, did you?"

Then Portenga learned about biofeedback—a tool that provides empirical evidence of physiological activity, such as heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, skin temperature and brain wave patterns. Using sensors connected to displays, he and his clients could see how their bodies reacted to stress and to stress-reduction exercises. Athletes can also train with biofeedback apps at home and these sessions can be tracked, to see not only that they do their homework, but how well it works.

Portenga says he appreciates not just biofeedback's ability to provide accountability, but the way it has helped his athletes learn to handle competitive pressure. He has used the technique with athletes in every major professional sport, including at Super Bowls, world championships and the Olympics.

Biofeedback is an umbrella term covering several types of therapies. Common ones include heart-rate variability (HRV) biofeedback, which looks at the interval between heartbeats; electroencephalograph (EEG) biofeedback, also called neurofeedback, which focuses on brain wave activity; and electromyography biofeedback, which concentrates on muscle activity.

During biofeedback training, clients can see the response that's being measured while under simulated stress—such as by viewing a competition video or playing a challenging computer game. Biofeedback therapy holds that as people practice different responses to stress (slower breathing, for example), they can see how effective these are and adjust accordingly, which helps them learn how to better manage stress.

While large-scale research covering biofeedback's efficacy remains scant, studies have indicated biofeedback's potential in treating a variety of physical and psychological conditions. Research led by Poppy Schoenberg, PhD, now at the Vanderbilt University Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, examined 63 studies on various types of biofeedback used to treat psychiatric disorders. She found that about 81 percent of participants showed some level of improvement, with 65 percent demonstrating "statistically significant" symptom reduction (Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 2014). A meta-analysis by Richard Gevitz, PhD, a health psychology professor at Alliant International University, examined HRV biofeedback's effectiveness in treating both psychological and physical disorders. Gevitz's review of more than 55 studies found that it shows promise in treating many disorders, including asthma, cardiovascular conditions, hypertension, depression, anxiety and insomnia, and has potential for improving performance (Biofeedback, 2013).

Today, Portenga, a founding member of APA's Coalition for the Psychology of High Performance, focuses his practice on adolescent athletes and nonathletes who may be faced with stressful situations that involve being judged or evaluated, including sports competitions and school tests. A session typically includes a mix of biofeedback and psychotherapy. As such, he says, he doesn't bill separately for biofeedback, in the same way a therapist wouldn't bill separately for mindfulness training. Portenga provides detailed invoices to clients to use for insurance filing, and is paid out-of-pocket by clients.

Portenga recommends clients use biofeedback apps at home—such as Respiroguide Pro—to help them visualize their breathing, like with an image of a ball rising with each inhalation and dropping with each exhalation. This helps clients adopt slower, synchronized breathing and heart rates to evoke a calmer state of mind, which is part of HRV biofeedback training. Over time, clients become accustomed to breathing at the slower rate and have less need to use apps, Portenga says. "To be able to track this to see what's going on, to see when things are progressing and when they're not, has just been fantastic."

Beyond stress management

Leah Lagos, PsyD, a performance psychologist in private practice in New York City, has been using biofeedback in her practice for about 10 years. She has used HRV biofeedback to help post-concussion syndrome patients alleviate headache, problems concentrating and other symptoms. She is working with New York University on a study exploring the use of HRV biofeedback with this syndrome, which she explains is linked to an injury to the autonomic nervous system. "I've treated over 100 athletes [with post-concussion syndrome] and they have very similar trajectories of experience: At week four their headaches dissipate, by week seven they can focus again," says Lagos.

She's also used biofeedback to help a patient end persistent vomiting after other medical interventions didn't work, and reduced incidence of migraines in other patients.

In addition, Lagos provides biofeedback to PGA tour golfers, dancers, Olympic rowers, soccer players, track athletes, basketball players and others. She typically meets patients once a week for about 10 weeks, with sessions lasting 45 minutes to an hour, during which time she uses biofeedback as well as cognitive-behavioral skills such as mindfulness training. She also insists clients do homework: two 20-minute sessions where they practice heart-rate variability using apps, such as Heartmath and Breath Pacer.

Biofeedback can also foster other benefits, says Lagos, including improved mood, reduced anxiety, lower muscle tension and improved attention.

While she doesn't accept insurance, she has had patients tell her that sometimes they are able to get insurance coverage for their biofeedback, particularly if they are being treated for headaches, she says. One of the aspects of this training that she most treasures, she says, "is seeing how it develops the patient's confidence."

Helping Olympians master their nerves

Lindsay Thornton, EdD, is a sport psychologist and a senior sport psychophysiologist at the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working with Olympic-bound athletes in sports such as track and field and swimming. "What I'm mainly working on is managing pressure, anxiety and stress around performance," Thornton says.

Thornton counsels athletes when needed, but the bulk of her work is helping athletes prepare to compete, which often entails using biofeedback. She claims that biofeedback can provide a "faster learning curve" for athletes to learn pressure-management skills.

"Sometimes in talk therapy, we can talk, talk, talk" without being able to change behaviors, she says. "But for me, using psychophysiology as a tool has been really powerful to teach athletes skills" in ways that would be difficult to do using words alone—with a sensor on the muscle, the client can visualize what's happening and see the impact of various exercises.

Thornton primarily uses HRV biofeedback and EEG biofeedback, also called neurofeedback, which focuses on brain waves. When Thornton first sees athletes, she does a "full-cap" assessment with 19 sensors on an athlete's head to allow her to see brain-wave patterns under different conditions. For example, she'll have athletes work on virtual tasks, which enables her to see their physiological responses to stress.

With neurofeedback, clients are able to see their brainwaves displayed and to differentiate between those that occur when they are stressed or losing concentration and those that happen when they are calm and focused. Through neurofeedback training, athletes learn to modify their brainwaves and states of mind, which helps improve performance, says Thornton.

"The goal of neurofeedback training is to create an awareness over what certain mental states feel like and then to develop strategies to recreate that state under pressure or in the face of distraction," she says.

Thornton creates routines for each athlete that are rehearsed repeatedly under simulated stress conditions. Athletes may practice pre-performance rituals, for instance, that can include visualizations of their performance, breathing exercises and use of code words associated with what they expect to do (an archer may say, "smooth, shoulder, through" to reinforce upcoming actions to take).

Thornton became attracted to biofeedback during her training in sport psychology. "I wasn't sure I was always doing the right things with athletes," she says. "We were talking about muscle relaxation and visualization. The athlete might believe they were doing it correctly and I might think they were doing it correctly, but I wanted some type of assurance that we were achieving our goal." Biofeedback helps provide that objective evidence, she says.

Olympic-level athletes are fascinated by peering inside their bodies—by seeing the responses her sensors display. "They enjoy that type of feedback," she says.

Thornton has her athletes practice outside her lab with apps such as Stress Doctor, which reinforces their heart-rate variability training. But she doesn't want her clients to rely on technology, pointing out that "they can't pull out their phone on the field." So, she gradually weans them from visual and auditory feedback to just audio to no feedback at all, using only their own now-heightened body awareness.

The payoff, she says, is seeing athletes master these strategies and witnessing "the pride and comfort and confidence they have." And when the hard work she and her athletes have put in results in Olympic medals, as happened in the 2016 Rio Olympics? "It's really exciting," says Thornton.

"No Insurance Required" is a Monitor series that explores practice niches that require no reimbursement from insurance companies. To read previous installments, go to www.apa.org/monitor/digital and search for "No Insurance Required."

For a more extensive look at the research on biofeedback, visit our digital edition at www.apa.org/monitor/digital and search for "Positive Feedback" in the March 2016 issue.

Resources

Biofeedback Certification International Alliance 
BCIA.org

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback Inc. 
AAPB.org

By Lorna Collier


This article was originally published in the June 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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29 Sep 2017

How Did You Get That Job? A Q&A with Sports Psychologist Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti

The knowledge, skills and experience gained through your psychology training can transfer successfully to a variety of jobs. Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti is the director of player wellness for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the union for professional football players. In her role, NiiLampti ensures that players are educated about the NFL’s policies for substance abuse, and provides education, resources and guidance to players in multiple areas of wellness, including mental health support.

Learn how you can apply your psychology education in a similar career path.

Nyaka NiiLamptiSpeaker:
Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti is a sports psychologist with over 15 years of experience in the field. A collegiate athlete, her senior thesis explored the psychological impacts of sports on women. She holds an M.A. in exercise and sport science (sport psychology) and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. Before joining the NFLPA, NiiLampti worked in college counseling centers and a large group private practice, and was an assistant professor of psychology at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina.


Garth Fowler, PhDHost:
Garth A. Fowler, PhD, is an Associate Executive Director for Education, and the Director of the Office for Graduate and Postgraduate Education and Training at APA. He leads the Directorate’s efforts to develop resources, guidelines, and policies that promote and enhance disciplinary education and training in psychology at the graduate and postdoctoral level.

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27 Sep 2017

How to Tackle Tough Topics in the Classroom

How to Tackle Tough Topics in the Classroom

In an age of polarized opinions, psychology educators are amplifying their efforts to promote more understanding

The day after the 2016 presidential election, assistant psychology professor Evelyn Hunter, PhD, knew she had to be prepared for different types of discussion in the three classes she was teaching that day at Presbyterian College, a small, mostly white liberal arts college in Clinton, South Carolina.

"I realized it was going to be hard for me to concentrate on just lecturing, and that students would be activated by the results, too," says Hunter, who is African-American and says that she was concerned about how the election results might affect people of color.

Fortunately, Hunter was armed with techniques that allowed her to safely introduce the topic of difficult dialogues for discussion, which she had gleaned from co-writing a paper on the topic as a graduate student, and later watching others conduct difficult dialogues and then conducting them herself. She grouped the students in circles, first emphasizing the importance of respecting and valuing everyone's opinions, then inviting them to air their thoughts and concerns. A biracial student said she felt hated by other students and that no one seemed bothered by that. White students revealed they felt that others unfairly viewed them as racists for voting for Donald J. Trump.

The conversation appeared to enlighten some, while leaving others uncomfortable—and that is part of the process, says Hunter, now an assistant professor at Auburn University. "Earlier in my career, I thought that a good dialogue meant everyone left happy and feeling great about it, but that's not always realistic," says Hunter. "If the dialogue is truly difficult and it's really a necessary conversation, maybe it's not the best thing if we all stay in our comfort zones."

Leaving things unsaid does not mean they do not exist, she adds. "I believe we give things more power to do harm when we allow them to remain unexposed."

Hunter's approach to such discussions is just one of many ways that psychology educators are helping students address tough social issues. Known by terms like "difficult dialogues" and "challenging conversations," the work can take myriad forms, including brief discussions about current events, classes dedicated to key themes, and planned events that focus on hot-button topics within local communities. The work isn't easy, but it's highly rewarding, says Sue C. Jacobs, PhD, a professor at Oklahoma State University and fellow of APA Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology), who has been training others in difficult dialogues since 2009.

"We live in a world of bullet points," Jacobs says, "but to have truly difficult dialogues, you have to go underneath the bullet points and listen to other people."

Preparing students

For two main reasons, colleges and universities are key places to hold such exchanges, adds psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, president emerita of Spelman College and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race," slated for a 20th-anniversary edition this year. For one, universities are one of the few places that young adults from diverse backgrounds come together and share the same spaces. For another, they're settings where these dialogues can take place in a safe and structured way, with positive, educational outcomes as the goal.

"From an educator's viewpoint, it seems a shame not to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to prepare the next generation for effective leadership"—in this case, by fostering the ability to successfully engage with a wide range of people, Tatum says.

Not surprisingly, this work can meet with opposition. Administrators and fellow faculty may consider such discussions too political or too removed from what they see as the central aim of education, namely, imparting objective information to students. And for their own reasons, faculty may be leery of getting involved—fearing the disapproval of colleagues, a diminished shot at tenure or even ignorance about the subject matter. But in an increasingly complex world where personal aspects of identity are ever more salient at school, work and in other contexts, facilitators believe these difficult dialogues are essential.

"Most of our students have never thought about why they think the things they think," says Oklahoma State University professor and APA Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) fellow Shelia Kennison, PhD, who infuses difficult dialogue strategies into her undergraduate courses. The conversations allow the students to learn about themselves and other people "in a way that is more uniting than dividing," she says.

A starting point

The term "difficult dialogues" was first used in 2005 by the Ford Foundation to support work that would address a national concern: growing racial and religious tensions on U.S. campuses in the wake of 9/11. Through a competitive process, the foundation awarded 27 colleges and universities up to $100,000 to launch relevant projects in the area, for a total of $2.5 million.

That same work continues today, with more relevance than ever, many say. Although the foundation's funding ended in 2008, many campuses have continued to make creative and sustained efforts to address the plethora of challenging social issues that seem to arise on a daily basis. The pros and cons of gun control, environmental versus economic concerns, racial profiling, gender identity and sexual orientation issues, religious versus scientific belief systems, issues related to climate change—almost any charged social topic provides fodder for deeper discussion, says Libby Roderick, who directs the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), which received some of the original Ford Foundation funding.

Given psychologists' expertise in human behavior and motivation, they are particularly strong players in this arena, as are sociologists and social workers, Tatum adds. That said, she'd like to see more faculty involved.

"I think every instructor can benefit from developing their capacity to facilitate what might feel like an uncomfortable conversation," Tatum says.

Only by imagination

Educators are incorporating difficult dialogues in a variety of creative ways. They can be a small but integral part of classroom activity, as with Hunter's election-related forum. They may be mandated adjuncts to traditional classes, per an Indiana University initiative called "Community Conversations," developed by psychologist and assistant professor Kerrie G. Wilkins-Yel, PhD. The effort requires students who are taking sections of the same class to meet in small groups once during the semester, and engage for two hours in a difficult dialogues process.

The format has the unique benefit of engaging a large number of students while maintaining the fundamental tenets of effective group dialogue, says Wilkins-Yel. At least two students in each group are of "marginalized identities," ensuring that the discussion is truly diverse, as opposed to simply including one "token" member of a minority group who might feel put on the spot, she says.

In other cases, entire classes are devoted to difficult dialogues. Last year, for instance, the counseling psychology department at the University of Missouri—another institution originally funded by the Ford Foundation—launched a graduate-level program focused entirely on helping students practice difficult dialogue skills and gain the tools to facilitate such discussions.

Other universities, like UAA, have centered on faculty development: Trainers there have taught difficult dialogue techniques to some 150 faculty members who are using the skills in a variety of ways.

These conversations are happening outside the classroom, as well. In Anchorage, UAA's Center for Advancing ­Faculty Excellence hosts a popular annual debate and faculty forum that's open to the public. There, students who are part of an internationally acclaimed debate team introduce a contentious topic—a recent example is whether the state's limited budget should go toward investing in the university or an oil and gas pipeline—and debate it for 40 minutes. They're followed by four faculty members who add their disciplines' perspectives to the conversation. After that, community members are invited to participate. 

"People come out of these things lit up," Roderick says. A common response: "‘This is what we're supposed to be doing; this is what higher ed is for,'" she says.

Stepping stones

Whatever form the work takes, there are several basic guidelines to keep in mind, educators involved in this work say. In general, preparation is key—it can include gaining specific training in the area; learning from manuals and other materials designed to walk educators through the process and its challenges; and attending conference and workshop presentations. At this year's APA Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., for example, Webster University psychology professor Linda Woolf, PhD, chaired a symposium on methods for addressing intolerance and hate on campuses, including difficult dialogues. Also, the biennial National Multicultural Conference & Summit regularly includes material on difficult dialogues. The Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center—created by facilitators to continue the work started by the Ford Foundation—hosts a biennial conference specifically on difficult dialogues; the next is slated for sometime in 2018 (see Resources below for more).

Once educators have received the training to start such conversations, it's important to lay a strong foundation for the discussion at the beginning of the conversation—one that emphasizes students' rights to express their thoughts and opinions and to respectfully disagree, no matter how intense a session becomes, says Wilkins-Yel. She also highlights expectations of how students should behave: They should actively listen to fellow students, talk in the first person and enter dialogues with a spirit of curiosity, for example.

Tiffany G. Townsend, PhD, senior director of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, urges educators to underscore that everyone has biases—­educators included—a tack that ­lowers defenses and gets students into a more receptive frame of mind for dialogue. To this end, it's also important that educators examine their own beliefs: Doing so "ensures that their biases don't color the conversation or inadvertently instill the very divisions that they are trying to address with the conversation," Townsend notes.

It helps to infuse relevant research into these conversations as often as possible, says Woolf. For instance, if a topic involves sexual orientation and gender identity, a discussion host can showcase research demonstrating the misinformation about and the effects of discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA people, which can help expand students' viewpoint on the topic.

To meet fellow educators who want to foster more of these discussions, psychologists may want to contact Div. 17's Subcommittee on Social Action, Jacobs recommends. Educators can also form groups with other interested faculty on their campuses.

Those who teach difficult dialogues say the work is like planting seeds—it may not ­produce immediate results, but it eventually bears fruit. "Students tend to come back long after the fact and say these dialogues were a formative experience for them," Kennison says. 

Resources

Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center 
Holds a biennial conference on difficult dialogues. www.difficultdialogues.org

University of Alaska's Difficult Dialogues Initiative 
Free handbooks and other information. www.difficultdialoguesuaa.org/handbook/landing

Promoting Student Engagement: Vol. 2, APA's Div. 2 (Teaching of Psychology) 
Chapters on infusing diversity, peace-related and other relevant material into difficult dialogues. Free download. http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/pse2011/vol2/index.php

By Tori DeAngelis


This article was originally published in the September 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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22 Sep 2017

Open Opportunities to do Collaborative Research

Open Opportunities to do Collaborative Research

Psychologists can find rewarding opportunities to work with other disciplines within NIH's major research initiatives

The National Institutes of Health is the world's biggest public funder of biomedical research, investing more than $32 billion each year—and a sizable amount of that money can be tapped by mental health and behavioral science researchers, especially those who are interested in collaborating with other disciplines.

Several major initiatives welcome a transdisciplinary perspective, even if on the surface they don't sound terribly psychological. Among them are the All of Us/Precision Medicine Initiative, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) and the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program.

"There are lots of opportunities, if the medical side becomes aware of the skills and content knowledge we psychologists have," says psychologist Leonard Bickman, PhD, a research professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

His research, focusing on how to encourage people to participate in clinical trials, receives funding from the NIH Clinical Translational Science Awards Program through Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Recruitment Innovation Center.

"If you're interested in applying theory, it's a wonderful world to work in," he says.

High-impact science

Among the initiatives where psychologists are finding opportunities is the All of Us program, which offered $55 million in awards in fiscal year 2016 to build the partnerships and infrastructure to get the program off the ground. All of Us is recruiting its million-plus participants and plans to release funding announcements once the project is launched. Those participants, representing a diversity of ages, races and backgrounds, will share biological samples, genetic data, lifestyle information and health records. Ultimately, those data will help researchers advance a more personalized approach to medicine by identifying biological markers for disease, identifying why people respond differently to medications, developing new ways to measure disease risk and creating a platform to test new targeted therapies.

The project will also collect large amounts of data on factors relevant to psychology, including stress, mood states, health risk behaviors and family and social network dynamics, says William Riley, PhD, director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at NIH.

"As this builds up to over a million participants, there will be a lot of opportunities for behavioral and social scientists to access those data. They'll also be able to apply to add other variables of interest to them," he says. "The longitudinal nature and sheer size of the sample will make a big difference for behavioral research."

Another important initiative for psychology research will be the BRAIN initiative, Riley says. BRAIN began funding researchers in 2014 and continues to accept new applications, awarding more than $70 million to research teams at 60 institutions in fiscal year 2016. The first stages of the project have mostly been focused on building tools that enable scientists to map the connectivity and circuitry of the brain.

"But all of that work is ultimately to understand behavior," Riley says. "As we move into the next five years, the goal will be to take some of those tools and map that circuitry onto specific behaviors. I expect we'll be seeing even more things coming out of BRAIN that have increasing relevance to psychology."

Sterling Johnson, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has funding from BRAIN for a project that aims to develop better methods to detect small but meaningful structural changes in the brains of healthy adults that could predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease. He's also funded through the large BD2K initiative for another project that applies computational neuroscience to Alzheimer's disease. Launched in 2012, BD2K aims to develop tools to integrate data science and vast data sets (often called "Big Data") with biomedical research.

Those projects are succeeding thanks to the close collaboration between the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and the University of Wisconsin's Department of Computer Science, he says. "This kind of research is much more powerful when you can do it in a multidisciplinary way," he says. "It's not a new concept to do team science, but initiatives like BRAIN really incentivize thinking about a problem from multiple angles, and really allow for high-impact science."

Speak a common language

Leslie Leve, PhD, who trained as a developmental psychologist and is now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, is also beginning to reap the benefits of transdisciplinary research, thanks to her work with Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). Launched in 2016 with $157 million in awards, the seven-year initiative will study the effects of a broad range of early environmental influences on child health and development. 

The program was a perfect fit for Leve, who for more than a decade has followed birth and adoptive families in an effort to separate the effects of genes and parenting on child development. Under a new grant from ECHO, Leve and her colleagues will enroll new children to build upon their existing data.

In the process, she's collaborating with psychologists, physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, geneticists and environmental scientists. "Everyone is coming from different philosophical backgrounds. In the end, that produces really novel, innovative science," she says.

Yet it can be challenging, too. Openness to ideas and willingness to learn from others is key to succeeding, Leve says. "We're learning to speak a common language and find the best way forward. You have to be willing to hear other perspectives, other paradigms and consider them in your research methodology."

It's not the right path for everyone. In addition to good communication and willingness to learn, thriving in this space requires patience, Bickman says. "It's so much easier to run a study with college students, hand out a questionnaire and be done in a semester. These large-scale projects often don't bear any fruit for years," he says. "It's a very different career path, and it has to be considered carefully." But for the right personality, the rewards can be significant, he adds.

Interested in diving in? Riley, Johnson and Leve all recommend starting by learning the basics of other fields relevant to your research interests. Read up on basic genetics. Learn to use electronic health records. Talk to computer scientists and learn their lingo. "Do some initial work to set yourself up to be competitive for a project like this," Riley says.

You probably don't have to go far to make those connections, Leve adds. "It's a tight-knit science world. Most likely, I know somebody who knows somebody who's an expert in a particular discipline, whether at my own institution or elsewhere."

She recommends building those connections in natural ways, by collaborating on a paper or sharing a draft of a grant you're working on to get the perspective of someone from a different field. "Those things can provide a really good training ground for this kind of experience," she says.

Ultimately, if you want to be a part of a major research initiative, you have to be willing to look beyond the traditional boundaries of psychology to collaborate and innovate in bold new ways, says Johnson. "It's hard to get funded by NIH these days doing individual lab research. NIH is looking for high-impact science that's really going to move the needle," he says. "They're looking for things with clear translational relevance that are going to make the world a better place."

Resources

All of Us Research Program
www.nih.gov/research-training/allofus-research-program

The BRAIN Initiative
www.braininitiative.nih.gov/index.htm

Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes Program
www.nih.gov/echo

Big Data to Knowledge
https://datascience.nih.gov/bd2k

By Kirsten Weir


This article was originally published in the June 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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