Research Roundup

'Grin and bear it' actually works

Can smiling during an unpleasant experience help you cope? Tara Kraft, a clinical psychology grad student at the University of Kansas, conducted a clever experiment to find out.

'Grin and bear it' actually worksInstead of telling participants to smile, Kraft and her colleagues asked them to hold chopsticks in their mouths in various ways. One group held chopsticks gently between their teeth, with the chopsticks sticking straight out in front of them, resulting in a neutral expression. The second group held the chopsticks the same way as the first group, but activated their cheek muscles, resulting in a forced, fake smile. The third set clenched the chopsticks in their mouths parallel to their lips, producing a big smile with both cheek and eye muscles activated.

The participants then tried to trace a star with their non-dominant hands while watching themselves in a mirror and wearing a heart monitor. To succeed, they had to complete the drawing 10 times in two minutes — an impossible task, which wasn't made easier by the research assistant making disparaging remarks the entire time. All the participants' hearts raced during the test, but those who smiled recovered their resting heart rate soon afterward, according to results published in the September issue of Psychological Science. Those with fake smiles recovered more slowly, and those with neutral facial expressions recovered slowest of all — failing to return to their resting heart rates five minutes following the task.

Heart rate acts as a proxy for overall health, according to Kraft. Healthy people typically recover their resting heart rate quickly after a stressor. Those who take longer to recover generally have worse outlooks for heart disease, diabetes and overall mortality.

"We found that smiling through these brief stressful experiences is literally good for your health," Kraft says.

Expect others to argue and they probably will

People with borderline personality disorder often see others as cold and quarrelsome — and that tendency can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, according to a study in press in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

When a person perceives someone else as cold and then responds with argumentative behavior, "People avoid the quarrelsome person and tend to react negatively to them," says Gentiana Sadikaj, a clinical psychology grad student at McGill University. This in turn is perceived as even more rejection, leading to more querulousness. This happens to everyone — but people with borderline personality disorder have a tendency to react more strongly in an irritable way, starting the cycle, she says.

Sadikaj and her co-authors asked 38 people with borderline personality disorder and 31 healthy controls to report on their daily interactions over a three-week period. The participants picked phrases to describe how they behaved in each exchange, such as "I made a sarcastic joke" and "I confronted someone about something that was bothering me," or "I smiled and laughed" and "I was affectionate." The participants also described whether the other person's behavior was hostile or agreeable.

Overall, the people with borderline personality disorder reported worse emotional experiences and more quarrelsome interactions than the healthy participants. While anyone who perceives others as cold and argumentative seemed to beget more negative emotions, that cycle seemed especially pronounced among people with BPD, Sadikaj says.

Skipping a grade can have lifelong benefits, study says

When intellectually gifted children skip a grade, the effects reverberate throughout their lives, according to a study published in the August Journal of Educational Psychology. They don't just graduate high school a year earlier than equally gifted peers, they also go on to reach major accomplishments, such as attaining their PhD or publishing a novel, a year earlier on average, says lead author Greg Park, a quantitative methods grad student at Vanderbilt University.

"It's really surprising — and cool — that grade skipping in fifth or sixth grade can have such significant effects 15 years later," he says.

Park used a data set of 5,000 intellectually precocious participants that Johns Hopkins and now Vanderbilt researchers have followed since age 12. He selected pairs of people with similar family backgrounds and achievements who differed only in whether they skipped a grade. Comparing the grade-skippers' aggregate career timelines with those of their unaccelerated peers revealed the long-term career-accelerating effects of grade skipping.

Previous research had primarily examined the short-term effects of grade skipping, and found that gifted students reported better social experiences when they skipped a grade. And it was known that these students tended to have impressive intellectual accomplishments in middle age. But Park's work went a step further, comparing the total productivity over the careers of these gifted students. The grade-skippers' one-year advantage really made a difference; they tended to patent more inventions or publish more and ultimately get cited more than similar peers who did not skip a grade.

Grade skipping is less popular now than it once was, but there is some evidence that other forms of educational acceleration such as Advanced Placement courses and gifted summer learning programs can have a similar effect, Park says.

Mindful attention can reduce nicotine's pull

Teaching smokers a practice known as mindful attention can help them dismiss nicotine cravings resulting from smoking cues, according to a study published in November in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. What's more, the practice reduces their brain activity — especially in an area of the brain known as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC), according to lead author Cecilia Westbrook, an MD/PhD graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.

Mindful attention can reduce nicotine's pullWestbrook and her colleagues used fMRI to monitor the brain activity of smokers as they viewed pictures of neutral objects, such as a box or chair, or smoking-related images, such as people smoking or glasses of alcohol. The smokers viewed the pictures either normally or while using mindful attention, a technique in which they objectively and nonjudgmentally monitored their own thoughts and physiological responses.

Afterward, the participants reported they had fewer cravings when they viewed the pictures mindfully. The fMRI showed that the technique seemed to reduce cross-talk between various regions of the brain. The mindfulness technique also appeared to suppress activity in the sgACC, which is involved in emotions, learning and memory and "connects a lot of other regions of the brain together," Westbrook says.

More research is needed to determine why mindfulness dampens cross-talk between various regions of the brain and how it can be effectively used to help people quit, Westbrook says.

Kim Krieger is a writer in Norwalk, Conn.