Research Roundup

When the leader's away, monkeys will stray

2011-09-roundup-geladaIt's hard out there for a male gelada, the baboon-like monkey that lives in the Ethiopian highlands. Once males hit sexual maturity, most are booted out of the colony, although a lucky dominant male is chosen by gelada females to stick around to mate with and become the group leader. That would seem to leave less dominant males at a genetic dead end, but Noah Snyder-Mackler, a comparative psychology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, has discovered that some manage to mate anyway.

Snyder-Mackler spent 12 months in northern Ethiopia over the past three years studying gelada mating habits and found an interesting loophole for subordinate males. While most dominate male geladas reign solo over social groups of 200 or more, about a third enlist a few subordinate males to help hunt for food and defend the group from predators or other males trying to take over their territory.

The price for this extra help? While the leaders are away hunting, mating or just roaming, these subordinates "sneakily mate with the females," Snyder-Mackler says.

It's possible that dominant males tolerate these trysts because geladas have a relatively short gestation period combined with long tenures by group leaders, so letting a subordinate father offspring and losing one's own chance to mate with a particular female for five months might be an acceptable tradeoff for some dominant males, Snyder-Mackler says.

Buying into 'the good life' leads to bad body image

2011-09-roundup-good-lifeAds don't just sell products, they sell sex, glamour and fame by depicting consumers living lavish lifestyles. It's well-known that ads featuring busty, skinny models can influence body image, but a new study in the British Journal of Social Psychology suggests that the combination of materialism and models may be especially toxic to women's self-esteem.

"Not all women are affected by images of idealized models in the same ways," says study author Eleni-Marina Ashikali, a psychology graduate student at the University of Sussex. "I wanted to identify what other factors might make women more or less vulnerable to these media images."

Ashikali created fictional advertisements for vacations, champagne and cellphones. Some of these ads played up images of wealth and success. Others used neutral images, such as abstract art and landscapes, to promote the products.

She then showed the ads to 155 young women. Some of the women viewed just the flashy ads, and some saw just the neutral. In addition, some participants also saw ads in which thin, beautiful models promoted an inexpensive product such as suntan lotion.

Throughout the test, Ashikali asked the participants to decide which ads they liked best to ensure they looked closely at them. Afterward, she surveyed the women on their feelings about their own bodies.

She found that women's body images were unaffected by viewing the materialistic or non-materialistic ads by themselves. However, when the ads were combined with pictures of models, the women who looked at the materialistic ads were significantly more self-conscious about and critical of their bodies than those who saw the non-materialistic ads.

The results suggest that materialistic media images can prime women to feel insecure about their bodies, Ashikali says, possibly because images of "the good life" make women think of other ways in which they feel they fall short of society's ideals.

Notice anything unusual? Probably not.

Remember the famous study where participants counting the number of times a basketball gets tossed fail to notice a man in a gorilla suit? That experiment was filmed right outside Harvard University perceptual psychology student Michael Cohen's lab. In addition to being laugh-out-loud funny, the study highlighted a longstanding controversy within visual perception research: Just how much information can you glean from a scene if you aren't actively paying attention to it?

"For many years, the prevailing view of attention was as a spotlight," Cohen says. "You'd shine it around and attend to individual things and ignore everything outside of that spotlight."

In contrast, however, some researchers have suggested that we process everyday scenes "pre-attentively," meaning that we don't have to actively pay attention to familiar environments to notice specific items within them or their physical features. For example, they argue that we don't notice the gorilla dancing in the hallway because that doesn't constitute a natural scene — it's not part of our everyday visual realm. But, they say, we do notice our surroundings and can somewhat accurately describe them, even when we haven't been actively paying attention to them.

Cohen put that theory to the test in an experiment in which he asked people to follow a moving target on a computer among a field of similar-looking targets. In the background was a jumble of colored squares. After watching the targets move around for a short period of time, participants were asked to point out the initial target.

Occasionally, the background would switch to an image of an everyday scene, such as mountains or a bedroom. Following these instances, Cohen asked the participants if they noticed anything unusual about the preceding test.

Almost 75 percent of the participants failed to notice when the background changed. When specifically asked if they noticed a different background, about 13 percent were able to remember what they'd seen.

The results suggest that familiar scene or no, people generally miss what they're not actively paying attention to. While his study won't end the controversy, Cohen says it's a strike against the theory of pre-attentive awareness.

Latinos struggle more in caring for stroke victims

2011-09-roundup-stroke-latinosIn America, Latinos and African Americans experience more strokes and are slower to recover from them than whites. For example, a 2009 article in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development (Vol. 46, No. 2) found that two years after suffering a stroke, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans showed less functional improvement than their white counterparts. Compounding the problem: Their family members seem to have more trouble coping with the burden of caregiving, according to a new study in Rehabilitation Psychology (Vol. 55, No. 4).

For the study, University of Florida counseling graduate student Paul Perrin and his colleagues identified 124 caregiver/care recipient pairs dealing with the aftermath of a stroke in Florida and Puerto Rico. Perrin interviewed the caregivers, measuring their levels of depression, feelings of burden and coping. He also interviewed the care recipients, assessing their ability to function and their mental health.

Perrin found that Latino caregivers experienced greater depression, burden and inability to cope than their counterparts of other races and ethnicities. He also found that Latino stroke victims took longer to recover — perhaps as a result of their caregivers' struggles.

These results square with previous research that found that Latinos feel a very strong sense of duty to care for sick or injured family members, which can strain their personal lives as they become engulfed in the caregiver role, Perrin says. He suggests that culturally sensitive programs that help Latinos minimize their stress while providing care can help both themselves and their charges.

"Latinos tend to be very invested in caring for their loved ones, often at the expense of their own mental health," he says. "But they can't do as good a job taking care of their loved ones if they can't take care of themselves at the same time."