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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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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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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13 Sep 2017

Dorothy Carter Explores a Mission to Mars

Dorothy Carter Explores a Mission to Mars
APA member Dorothy Carter snagged a $1 million NASA grant to research team dynamics during long-duration space exploration missions.

It is human nature to turn to people in our inner circle when we are in trouble.

But what if that trouble occurs 128 million miles from Earth while you are hurtling toward Mars in a spacecraft? And what if the person you most need is the one you least trust?

These questions are at the center of new research by APA member Dorothy Carter, an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Georgia (UGA). Just one year after completing her Ph.D., Carter snagged a $1 million NASA grant to research team dynamics during long-duration space exploration missions.

The three-year, collaborative study, called Project FUSION (Facilitating Unified Systems of Interdependent Organizational Networks), aims to help NASA successfully complete a mission to Mars by the year 2030 by accelerating knowledge of multiteam systems (MTSs).

“Astronauts on a mission to Mars are very likely to run into challenging and unexpected situations,” explains Carter. “The people involved—on Earth and in outer space—may have the natural human inclination to turn to similar others, such as teammates. However, in order to save lives of the people on the mission, NASA personnel may need to be prepared to seek help from dissimilar others.”

MTS research is a growing area of psychology that deals with intergroup dynamics in complex organizational settings. These networks of interdependent teams work on proximal goals in service of a common, overarching goal—like disaster-response efforts, global healthcare initiatives, and even pharmaceutical launches.

The human pitfalls of such tentacled organizations are obvious: potential competition among teams, inadequate communication and collaboration, hierarchical obstacles, and leadership challenges, to name a few.

NASA’s task in putting together an MTS for the Mars mission will be complicated. Not only will astronauts operate at the intersection of multiple teams doing highly specialized tasks, membership in those teams will rotate over time.

Additionally, “communication with family and coworkers on Earth will be severely limited and conducted entirely via technologies that have inherent communication delays,” Carter says.

To pinpoint what Carter’s research proposal terms the “hard truths and inherent complexities about teamwork,” Project FUSION is building a sophisticated agents-based mapping system that predicts the social networks that are likely form among MTS members across a variety of situations during space missions.

This computer-modeling approach allows Project FUSION to program a set of behavioral rules for stand-in human “agents” to see how their relationships play out in different circumstances. Who will interact with whom? Who will be trusted? Who will accept influence from whom? What are the basic human tendencies that will lead them to behave in a particular way?

“We call these explorations ‘virtual experiments’ . . . and it’s how we are speeding up the science,” says Carter. “We want to be able to identify the different factors that are going to have the most impact on the formation of affective, behavioral and cognitive relationships. And we don’t have the luxury of being able to study this for the next 100 years.”

The project has processes to ensure they are accurately feeding NASA-specific information into the models. They use qualitative interviews with NASA personnel, such as managers, mission control members and former astronauts from the International Space Station, to get a better handle on common disconnects that occur, as well as instinctive responses to unexpected events.

Project FUSION also is conducting laboratory studies at UGA and Northwestern University that include role-playing sessions between student subjects and professionals at HERA , NASA’s analog-simulation habitat for studying and training humans for extreme space environments.

“The students act as mission control,” says Carter. “Hopefully the professionals who are in HERA for several months will play our game three or four times with ‘mission control.’”

Ultimately, the project is expected to identify likely patterns of group dynamics and behavior and help NASA develop best practices for optimal team functioning during many situations that can go right—and very wrong—during long-distance space exploration.

Carter’s launch into teams and leadership research—and into academia at all—followed a unique trajectory.

Originally from Houston, Carter desired to be a ballerina. She left high school to be part of a professional dance training program, completing her degree through correspondence. After pursuing dance professionally for several years, she decided to go to college at age 21.

“My initial plans did not involve college,” she says. “I ended up at Wright State University (WSU) in Ohio where they had an open-door policy. I walked in a week before classes started and signed up. . . . However, this was one of the best decisions of my life. As an undergrad, I received fantastic one-on-one mentoring in research from the faculty at WSU.”

Excited by the psychology classes she took, Carter was encouraged by her mentors to pursue research. She says was drawn to study leadership and MTSs to some degree because of her background in dance.

“Large groups of people, made up of different teams, having to coordinate their behaviors to achieve a common goal. Hmmm . . . sounds like a ballet company!” she exclaims.

Once she got to graduate school at Georgia Institute of Technology, Carter was able to work with Leslie DeChurch a leader in MTS research, with whom she copublished several articles on the topic. Her award-winning dissertation research, advised by DeChurch, leveraged social network approaches to understand leadership in MTSs. 

Her work on the FOCUS grant builds on this prior research, as well as other NASA projects led by members of the Project FUSION research team.

“We’re expanding on these previous projects that I had the pleasure of working on in grad school,” Carter says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh Dorothy Carter independently developed all these ideas by herself and got a million dollar grant just out of grad school!’ Project FUSION is a collaboration across a big team of incredible researchers who are at both senior as well as more junior stages in their careers.”

“I think my personal experiences reflect the way that science is actually conducted these days,” she reflects. “It’s a group effort across multiple laboratories. Understanding multiteam functioning doesn’t just apply to the organizations we’re studying, it applies to the researchers ourselves. A lot of scientists work in MTSs, so science itself can be advanced by this research.”

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24 Aug 2017

Sian Beilock Wants to Help People Perform at Their Best

Sian Beilock Wants to Help People Perform at Their Best
Sian Beilock
APA Fellow Sian Beilock is the new president of Barnard College in New York City. (Photo: Jason Smith)

Sian Beilock, PhD, a psychologist, fellow of the American Psychological Association and the brand new president of Barnard College in New York City, sees her move into the top job at a "stellar" liberal arts college for women as a natural progression in a career that has focused on "helping people perform at their best."

Beilock was previously at the University of Chicago for twelve years as a psychology professor and the principal investigator with the Human Performance Lab there. By the time she left, she was an officer of the university as well. As a researcher, Beilock says she will "continue to collaborate with folks in Chicago. I'll always be a cognitive scientist."

She has written two popular books on the mind–body connection, Choke (2010, Free Press) and How the Body Knows Its Mind (2015, Atria Press). Her work has explored questions raised by her own early experience with "choking" during important performance events, and now represents a whole array of investigations into how to help people — from small children to parents to elite athletes — harness their potential to learn and excel.

In 2014, Beilock took on the additional role of vice provost for academic initiatives at Chicago, moving up last year to executive vice provost, a "high-striving leadership role, and I loved it," she says. In that role, in 2015, she created UChicago Grad, which offers graduate students and postdocs a variety of programs, events, workshops, and one-on-one coaching on presentation skills and interviewing, with an eye to helping them find good jobs not only in academia, but also in industry, nonprofits and government. Last year, she was named  the Stella M. Rowley professor of psychology.

"There's this false dichotomy, this idea that students need one set of skills for an academic career and another for industry,” she says. “They're a lot of the same skills, which we work to help our students acquire — to articulate a viewpoint, listen, take in new information and adjust their thinking based on what they've learned, to write and understand data — skills that are important no matter what endeavor they pursue."

Beilock says the same is true for undergraduate students like her new charges at Barnard, which was founded in 1889, one of the original Seven Sisters, elite women's colleges associated with the once all-male Ivy League. Barnard, with about 2,500 students, is affiliated with Columbia University.

"The liberal arts span across the humanities, the social sciences, the biological and natural sciences, and what this type of education gives students is the ability to think. The world is changing, and our role is to get them out with the tools they need in their first job, second job, eighth job, and graduate school," she says.

Beilock thinks her background in psychology will help her. She received her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and doctorates in kinesiology and in psychology from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Success in life depends, she says, "not just on knowledge or skills in a particular area, but also on having the psychological tools to put your best foot forward when it matters most. I hope that idea has influenced some to think about not just the math lesson but also how you feel about that lesson, and not just how you're practicing that swing on the golf course but how you're training your mind. That's what I've tried to work on throughout my research career, and I think a lot of those lessons will be helpful in the next chapter."

She has "always been interested in women and girls" in her research, "in understanding some of the psychological barriers that keep them from achieving up to their potential," she says. Research shows that seeing women in leadership roles encourages girls to be optimistic about their own chances to succeed in those pursuits, and that's something Beilock says she will be happy to represent and foster at Barnard.

"Barnard is the best of both worlds, a stellar, small women's liberal arts college working in tandem with a large research university,” she says. “Our women take classes with Columbia students. Our faculty members are tenured" at both institutions. "Students have the ability to choose the path they want to take. It's really a singular experience."

Another initiative she worked on in the provost's office at Chicago was the oversight of UChicago Urban, a pan-university effort that seeks to enhance engagement between the academy and the city that surrounds it. Beilock, whose role at Barnard also carries the title of dean at Columbia University, hopes to reflect that experience in her new job as well — investigating "how research around urban education is actually implemented in urban schools, and what we learn from teachers and others in urban schools about the types of research questions we should be asking. That was fascinating work for me. I'm thinking of Barnard too as a part of the great city of New York."

She is also excited about her own research over the last few years on how to cut through young students' math anxiety. As a researcher, she uses "converging methodologies" in her work — behavioral performance measures like reaction time and accuracy, concrete stress markers like salivary cortisol, and neuro-imaging.

Parents who are anxious about math can transmit those anxieties, she says. "Anxious parents also tend not to want to do math with their children, and don't talk about it as much. We've published work over the past couple of years that shows that giving parents opportunities to do math in a fun and interesting way with their young children — maybe not just bedtime stories, but also bedtime math — can change how much children learn in math across the school year. It's especially true for parents who tend to be most anxious about math. I think it's really exciting that we can provide tools for children, and for parents to support their children in achieving up to their ability," Beilock says.

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09 Aug 2017

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe
David Schwebel
APA Fellow David Schwebel not only studies the effects of mobile technology on pedestrian safety, but also harnesses virtual reality to help prevent injuries caused by distracted walking.

A young girl prepares to cross a busy street, her face plastered to a smartphone. Will she step off the curb and run for it or wait for a gap?

It may sound like a phone-happy, distracted pedestrian but it’s actually the reverse: The girl is using a smartphone—coupled with virtual-reality technology—to help her learn how to cross the street safely.

The experiment is the latest brainchild of APA Fellow David Schwebel, a leading researcher in child-injury prevention and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he directs the UAB Youth Safety Lab.

Schwebel has created a sophisticated street-crossing training application that runs using software for a smartphone retrofitted with Google Cardboard—an inexpensive virtual-reality platform.

The user just places a phone into a cardboard or plastic viewer, and looks through its plastic lenses into a virtual world of traffic—complete with sounds and passing cars. The “traffic” moves at different speeds, with variances for car distances and gap sizes. When students judge it safe, they click a button and step off the virtual curb to cross the street.

“We record absolutely everything,” says Schwebel. “We know exactly when they choose to cross the street, their speed of walking, the speed of vehicles, which gaps they’re choosing, whether they enter soon after a car passes or if there’s a delay—which is a good proxy of their cognitive processing.”

The simulator lets Schwebel and his students study a dangerous task without putting children at risk—and it gives participants great practice for the real world.

While the intervention may be fun, the imperative for his work is deadly serious: Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. leaped 11 percent to more than 6,000 deaths in 2016. Of the estimated 270,000 pedestrian traffic deaths worldwide, nearly half are youths.

Schwebel is among a surprisingly scant cohort of research psychologists working in the field of youth safety. His Youth Safety Lab is one of the few academic research centers in North America devoted to researching child safety, and is a major locus for research and student training.

“When you take a step back from pedestrian safety and realize that injuries are by a huge margin the leading cause of child death in America—and one of the leading ones globally—it’s pretty remarkable that more psychologists aren’t thinking about the behavioral aspects of it,” notes Schwebel.

Schwebel has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and conducts a wide spectrum of research at his lab: pedestrian safety, poisoning prevention, global injury prevention, dog-bite prevention, youth soccer safety, playground safety, lifeguard behavior, car-seat safety, among many others.

It’s enough potential danger to keep any helicopter parent permanently on high spin.

“Clearly at every age there are risks,” acknowledges Schwebel, “. . . but children as young as 18 months can be taught to follow rules and avoid injury.”

Although he has earned a reputation as a technologically innovative researcher, one of his most successful youth-safety interventions was decidedly low tech—and targeted caregivers as much as it did children.

He developed a “Stamp-in-Safety” program to help improve teacher supervision of preschoolers on playgrounds, where nearly 70 percent of preschool injuries occur.

“We said, the teachers are in the shade talking about their weekend and the kids are running around on the playground. How can we change this?” notes Schwebel.

The solution was simple: Give nametags to all kids and equip teachers with self-inking stamps. When teachers see a child playing safely they give him or her an ink stamp as a reward. “On the surface it’s rewarding the child for safe behavior,” notes Schwebel, “but underneath the goal was to change teacher behavior too.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Schwebel would become a psychologist. The son and grandson of psychologists—father Dr. Andrew Schwebel taught at Ohio State University, and grandfather Dr. Milton Schwebel was a dean at Rutgers University—psychology was “the family business.”

“I grew up with psychology as part of my life,” he says. “As a kid, I sometimes even went to APA conventions.”

Schwebel got a taste for applied research as an undergrad at Yale, where he worked with noted psychologist Jerome Singer. His mentor had been hired by creators of the Barney and Friends children’s television show on PBS to evaluate its effectiveness in teaching children.

“As much as parents got sick of the [theme] song, the show actually taught children a lot,” says Schwebel. “We had children watch the show, as well as getting lessons in school. Our research showed that children learned as much from the show as they did from their teachers on the same topics.”

Based on their findings, the show’s creators rewrote some episodes to increase their effectiveness. “That taught me how psychology could really make a difference,” says Schwebel.

He has carried that passion for applied psychology into much of his research, developing interventions that offer real-world tools based on data collected in his lab and in the field. In some cases, his work may have directly saved lives.

Several years ago, for instance, he was approached by an attorney representing a family whose toddler son had died from drinking torch fuel. It became one of several child-poisoning lawsuits against manufacturers.

In a series of studies, Schwebel and his researchers studied the shape, coloring and labeling of a variety of bottles to determine how likely preliterate children were to consider them as something safe to consume—or to avoid.

“We discovered, not surprisingly, that they were more likely to judge an opaque, black bottle as dangerous than a transparent torch-fuel bottle with juice-colored liquid inside,” says Schwebel, adding: “Then the company started packaging the product in a dark-colored bottle. I have to assume that my research played at least some role in that decision.”

Schwebel’s penchant for applied research and social justice also has resulted in many international research partnerships. He has worked with researchers to evaluate kerosene-safety practices in low-income South African communities and in rural Uganda, and conducted extensive research with partners in China.

”I enjoy working with people from other cultures and I also think I have some obligation,” says Schwebel, “because ultimately we conduct science to improve society. There is higher risk of injury in other countries so that’s a priority for me.”

One long-running collaboration with Iranian researchers, which because of political issues was conducted entirely through emails, highlighted self-immolation among young women in Iran.

“It’s devastating, culturally bound, and it tends to be low-educated young wives who . . . often have tough lives,” he says. “It sometimes leads to severe depression, and immolation is in many cases their only means to commit suicide.”

These days, Schwebel is focusing on getting his pedestrian-safety programs to scale big—and even hop continents.

A recent test run with schoolchildren in China was a big hit. The class went wild when the technology was introduced and the trainings netted great results. The PI on several grants from the NIH, Schwebel hopes to expand this work into other rapidly motorizing countries, including South Africa and Iran.

“With Google Cardboard all you need is a smartphone and a $3 piece of cardboard with a couple of plastic lenses and magnets. It’s not a high-priced device. And since smartphones are everywhere, even in low-income communities . . . it’s really feasible anywhere in the world,” he says.

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05 Jul 2017

A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles Booklet
This booklet, A Collection of Basic Experimental Psychology Articles, features articles on some timely topics, including how the Internet inflates people’s estimates of their own knowledge and how mobile technology can be used to crowd source data collection for psychological research.
 
If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on basic experimental psychology. And as an APA member, you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.

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30 Jun 2017

A Collection of Core Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Core Psychology Articles Booklet

This booklet, A Collection of Core Psychology Articles from APA’s publishing office, drills down into some of the most fascinating topics in the field, from personality disorders to youth violence and homelessness.

If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on core psychology. And as an APA member, you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.

 

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26 Jun 2017

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies
Charlotte Patterson
APA Fellow Charlotte Patterson has done groundbreaking research on child development, most notably on the topic of children of lesbian and gay parents.

It was her career on the line. Could the publication of one paper “taint” a reputation built on 20 years of child development research? It was the question Charlotte Patterson asked herself when she went to work at her University of Virginia (UVA) office one morning in the 1980s.

“I can still remember walking up to this building, looking up and thinking, well, who else is going to do it if not me?” says Patterson, PhD, APA Fellow, Stanford grad, noted developmental psychology researcher. And lesbian.

The paper in question was her landmark work, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” It was among the first research that debunked then-prevalent beliefs that children with lesbian or gay parents showed compromised psychosocial development relative to children from heterosexual parents.

Published as the lead article in Child Development in 1992, it blew open doors for mainstream lesbian and gay studies and became a crucible for public and legal discourse about LGBTQ family issues for decades to come.

“In those days, and still today, if you write something on a LGBTQ topic as a professional research psychologist people will assume you have some connection to the topic,” Patterson says. “I was frankly worried that . . . it would be a real problem for my career. Would people let me work with their children?

“A lot of people were shocked that I wrote it,” she continues. “People saw that article as a kind of professional coming out. That won me some friends and lost me some, as you can imagine.”

Since then, Patterson has been at the forefront of LGBTQ family studies, worked as an expert witness on landmark child custody cases involving lesbian parents, and been party to changes in state recognition of gay marriage that paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court).

A major challenge for Patterson and other early LGBTQ researchers was the dearth of available data on lesbian and gay families. In statistics, as in life, these families remained hidden. To amass a review of the scant literature that existed in the 1980s, Patterson literally drove from campus to campus in search of doctoral dissertations.

“Information was strewn across many fields—some in social work, psychology, psychiatry—a few people here and there who didn’t seem to know one another. It wasn’t a coherent field at that point in time. I realized there were lots and lots of interesting things that nobody had studied, to put it mildly.”

As if to emphasize this, Patterson glances at a bookshelf full of gender studies texts at her UVA office, where she has spent her entire academic career. (“I arrived here at 25, when I didn’t even own a couch!” she laughs.) An entire row of publications are her own, including Handbook of Psychology and Sexual Orientation, the 2013 APA Division 44 Book of the Year. “In those days, it was this sense of seeing an open frontier in front of you and wondering where to begin.”

Patterson started by studying what she knew: the relatively large group of lesbians raising children in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, where she was then living on sabbatical.

“This was the perfect place to try to do that work,” recalls Patterson, who later had children with her own partner-then-wife. “It was the only place in the world at that time with a large concentration of lesbian families who had kids together. So it was my great good luck to begin research there . . . to meet families and to interview them.”

Much of the early work highlighted data on similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex parented households.

“The first findings of primary importance to policy issues were that [same-sex] parents in general were pretty well-adjusted people. That doesn’t seem surprising to people today but it did then. A second conclusion was, in general, that the children were also well adjusted, pretty much like their neighbors and peers in school.”

One study that gained wide media attention presented data suggesting that same-sex parents have a more equal division of household labor than their heterosexual counterparts do, findings corroborated by other studies internationally.

“The division of labor was the first big difference we saw,” recalls Patterson. “It’s so dramatic. A lot of people have taken up the finding and said, ‘Look! This is same-sex couples leading the way into a less gendered world!’”

But that was just the beginning of the story as far as she was concerned. Patterson wanted to understand the nuances of family systems—the distinctive qualities of experiences in families of lesbian and gay parents—and the differences among them.

She embarked on wide-reaching research that yielded significant findings: sex-role identity among children of same-sex headed families; adoption issues among gays and lesbians; division of household labor among gay and lesbian parents; and LGBTQ family issues within the context of changing legal and social policy environments.

Interestingly, it was the cross-examination by a prosecutor in her first of many appearances as an expert witness in lesbian-gay family legal battles that prompted Patterson to take her research to the next level.

“There was a 1993 trial that took place in Henrico Co., Va., not far from here,” recalls Patterson. “It involved a lesbian mom being sued for custody of her little boy by her own mother. It was a dramatic case, a sordid tale.

“Testifying as an expert, I was asked by the opposing attorney, ‘This research you’ve done, isn’t it about some crazy people in Berkeley?’ And of course, the research was about people who lived in Berkeley, not people who lived in Henrico. I thought his point was well taken actually, and it led me to want to know more about other groups and more carefully selected samples. It really made a huge impact on me.”

To obtain a more objective sample, Patterson teamed up with a sperm bank that had extensive records of all clients seeking help in getting pregnant. “It made a wonderful sample—singles, couples, straight, gay. We were able to invite every single woman who had come to this clinic to participate.”

A resulting paper in Child Development in 1998, “Psychosocial Adjustment Among Children Conceived via Donor Insemination by Lesbian and Heterosexual Mothers,” showed that these children were developing normally, and that their adjustment was unrelated to parental sexual orientation or the number of parents in the household.

Later, Patterson was able to tap into a large national data set—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—to develop a methodological innovation in the study of child development in households headed by same-sex couples. The study didn’t ask parents if they were lesbian or gay. But by teasing out details among their answers—Are you in a marriage-like relationship? What is the gender of your partner?—Patterson was able to identify families with same-sex parents.

“It was very challenging to do that,” she recalls. “There were lots of technical challenges; we were trying to discern the signal from the noise.”

Importantly, this work confirmed her earlier findings.

Patterson takes satisfaction in the role of her work in expanding knowledge and public policy about what determines a family, but expresses something more personal about its effects on her own community: “I sometimes see that my research has made an impact when people tell me that they used the work in many ways when they were considering having children.

“Most people my age in the gay community grew up assuming they wouldn’t have kids. A lot of us were affected with what I would call internalized homophobia,” she explains. “If you’ve heard people around you forever telling you that you’d be a terrible parent you wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have children. A lot of people told me they read my articles and said, ‘Hey, maybe I could be a good parent!’ Or they used the findings to reassure worried grandparents-to-be.”

She looks at a photo of her grinning children on her desk, reflecting on the wonderful adults each has become.

“There are so many stories!” she marvels. “This work on families continues to rivet my attention. I think families are the most interesting thing in the world.”

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23 Jun 2017

How Did You Get That Job? A Q&A with NIH Technology and Innovation Executive Dr. Matthew McMahon

The knowledge, skills and experience gained through your psychology training can successfully transfer to a variety of jobs. As the Director of the Office of Translational Alliances and Coordination at the NIH’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Dr. Matthew McMahon uses his psychology background to help academic researchers convert their laboratory discoveries into therapies and cures through entrepreneurship and product development training, seed funding for projects, and mentoring by business and industry experts. Learn how you can apply your psychology education to a similar career path.

Matthew McMahonSpeaker:

Matthew McMahon, PhD, leads the Office of Translational Alliances and Coordination to enable the development and commercialization of research discoveries funded by the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Dr. McMahon previously created and led the National Eye Institute’s Office of Translational Research to advance ophthalmic technologies through public-private partnerships with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. His previous experience includes service as the principal scientist for the bionic eye company Second Sight Medical Products and as a staff member on the Senate and House of Representatives committees responsible for science, technology, and innovation policy.

Garth FowlerHost:

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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