Research Roundup

The 'Obama effect'

Evidence for the 'Obama effect'

Could having a black president be reducing prejudice in the United States? That appears to be the case, according to research by William T.L. Cox, a social psychology student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Cox gave the Implicit Association Test, which measures racial bias, to 229 white undergraduates at his university, he found a strong departure from past research that showed about a 70 percent bias against black people. In Cox's experiment, the results were even, with 50 percent of participants showing bias against black people.

"We thought that maybe this happened because media exposure reduced implicit bias on a wide scale," says Cox.

To test that theory, Cox ran the bias test again and followed it up with a questionnaire that asked what was on people's minds when they took the bias test. The questionnaire showed that the people with the least bias against black people were thinking of President Barack Obama.

"We call it 'The Obama Effect,'" says Cox, who published his results in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 45, No. 4). And the implications are huge, he says. Because people's actions are strongly affected by their racial biases, less prejudice could lead to more opportunities and a better quality of life for black people in the United States. But only time will tell if Obama spurs a lasting change in American race relations, he adds.

Mentally ill vets may face less stigma than civilians 

About one-fifth of the veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—300,000 people—return home with combat-related mental health problems. Many of these people leave one war only to return home to fight a war with stigma. However, new research by Mike Reynolds, an experimental psychology student at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., holds some good news for these veterans: Civilians largely don't hold soldiers responsible for their mental illnesses.

Reynolds had 119 civilians read vignettes about soldiers' and civilians' mental health. The vignettes were about people who were diagnosed as having mental illness, such as schizophrenia or major depressive disorder. Reynolds measured how much the participants stigmatized the vignette subjects, asking them whether they believed the people were personally responsible for their illness and whether it is treatable, for example. Participants also indicated whether they would like the mentally ill vets or civilians marrying into their family, as a colleague, or as a neighbor.

For most of the conditions, Reynolds found that the stigma civilians felt toward mentally ill military personnel matched the stigma they felt toward other civilians. However, one condition was significantly different: personal responsibility.

While 65 percent of civilians felt that the civilian was personally responsible for his or her illness, only 31 percent felt that military members were responsible for theirs.

This may be because people assume veterans' mental health problems result from seeing the horrors of war, says Reynolds.

While these attitudes are perhaps unfair to the mentally ill civilians, "They give hope to veterans who might otherwise be afraid to seek help because of public perception," Reynolds says.

Are parents of children with autism ignored victims? 

Past research has shown that raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder often leads to stress and marital discord. But are these parents also experiencing trauma?

Perella Rooz and Sarah Munoz of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., sought to answer that through a study that examined 33 parents of children with pervasive developmental disorder, a broad category that includes Autistic Disorder, Rett's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Asperger's syndrome. The researchers asked the parents to complete three measures that determine levels of stress, marital discord and secondary trauma.

The parents showed some signs of secondary trauma, and they reported high levels of stress and discord, putting them in the top ninth percentiles for those measures. Socioeconomic status didn't affect stress, discord or secondary trauma in the students' admittedly small sample.

Though the results are just preliminary, they underscore the need to treat entire families, not just children, Rooz says.

"With such high levels of stress, discord and possibly secondary trauma, it's important to remember that we currently work with a delivery model that often only targets children," says Rooz.

Teaching young bats new tricks

Every night, bats perform high-speed, high-flying acrobatics as they stalk tiny insects zipping through the sky. But while bats are born with the tools to execute these feats—including breathtakingly accurate echolocation and wings built for speed—they appear to learn how to hunt effectively from more experienced bats, according to research by Genevieve Spanjer Wright, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park's Center for Comparative and Evolutionary Biology of Hearing.

To identify whether new bats inherently know how to hunt, Wright paired 14 naive bats, most of which were juveniles, with eight adult bats in the university's flight room, where she had tethered a meal worm to the ceiling. Half the time, the bat pairs consisted of a young, inexperienced bat and another inexperienced bat. The other half of the time, the pair included one inexperienced bat and an experienced bat that Wright had previously taught to catch the worm.

Using a high-speed camera, Wright taped the bats' flight and found that none of the naive bats that had been paired with inexperienced older bats managed to capture the worm. In contrast, seven of the 11 naive bats that had an experienced bat as a partner managed to attack or capture the snack.

Wright also observed that the bats that attacked or captured the worm flew closer to the demonstrator bat. By flying near the demonstrator bat, the young bats may have picked up auditory cues such as changes in the demonstrator's echolocation calls as it approached the mealworm or chewing sounds that helped them learn how best to obtain the free meal.

"There does seem to be a social component to learning to hunt," Wright says. "A lot of people don't think much of bats, but they may learn more from each other than a number of other animals."