In Brief

  • FreedomFeeling free and independent increases people's sense of well-being more than wealth does, suggests a meta-analysis by researchers at Wellington in New Zealand. They looked at studies that asked participants about their health, wealth and happiness. All together, the 638 studies covered 420,599 people in 63 countries. The researchers found that individualism, personal freedom and autonomy were the biggest predictors of well-being. While money helps satisfy basic needs, the drive to do as one chooses appeared to be the most important factor in determining overall well-being. However, too much individualism separates families and causes anxiety, reducing well-being, the study found. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 1, )

  • Environmental factors might contribute more to autism spectrum disorders than genetic factors do, according to new research. In the study, researchers looked at 192 pairs of fraternal and identical twins in which at least one twin was diagnosed with autism. The team analyzed the autism incidence rate among the other twins in the pairs for both the identical twins, who are nearly genetically identical to their siblings, and the fraternal twins, who share about half their genes. Among all of the pairs, both twins grew up in the same environment. All told, about 55 percent of autism cases in the study could be explained by growing up in the same environment and 37 percent could be attributed to genetics—a much higher ratio of environment to genetics than has been previously reported. (In press in Archives of General Psychiatry)

  • As few as two one-on-one talks about marijuana's health effects could help kids reduce their pot-smoking, according to researchers at the University of Washington and Virginia Tech. About one-third of American high school students report smoking marijuana somewhat regularly. Many would like to quit or reduce their smoking but don't know how, the researchers say. Researchers set up informational meetings for high school students who wanted to learn more about the health effects of smoking marijuana. Volunteers either heard two educational talks about the effects of cannabis or took part in two motivational sessions where the student and counselor discuss the student's own motivations for smoking or wanting to quit. Students who engaged in the motivational sessions used about 20 percent less of the drug in the following two months. Those who heard the educational talks reduced their use by about 8 percent. (In press in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors)

  • Groups of fish that lose their social leaders are slower to learn new behaviors, according to a new study by Indiana University researchers. They used zebrafish to explore social network theory, which holds that key individuals serve as information hubs within groups. The researchers identified, then removed, the most social fish from several groups of three to four fish. Other groups kept their social leaders. When the researchers attempted to teach the fish a new task—associating the appearance of a red card with a brine-shrimp reward—the groups that retained their most social fish learned the task more quickly than the socially leaderless groups. Of the two different breeding strains the researchers tested, one was better than the other at coping with the loss of a leader, suggesting that genetic differences might contribute to resilience to such loss. (In press in the Journal of Comparative Psychology)

  • Service membersMen and women service members show the same resilience after serving in combat, according to a national sample of U.S. veterans. The study included 340 women and 252 men who experienced wartime conditions involving weapons, exposure to human remains, attending to detainees and other stressors. Men were reported to have seen more combat than women, but not by a significant amount. Based on survey responses, men's and women's post-traumatic stress and depression levels were similar, although men reported more substance abuse. These findings highlight the fact that female soldiers can mentally handle combat as well as men can and may lead to more women on the frontlines, researchers say. (In press in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology)

  • Mental health screening could help connect low-income black students with school-based mental health services, according to a study led by researchers at the TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University. Previous data show that black young people are much less likely than their white peers to access mental health services and that being poor can lead to increased risk for mental illness. The researchers screened almost 800 black and white sixth- through eighth-grade students using a 14-item questionnaire. Following a clinical interview, students who screened positive for depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation or other mental disorders were referred to school-based services for treatment. The black students were more likely to use these services than their white peers, indicating that such services could be an effective point of entry for providing treatment to populations that have traditionally had trouble getting it. (In press in the Community Mental Health Journal)

  • Discordant emotions—such as feeling bittersweet or grinning in spite of sadness—might inspire creativity and atypical thinking, according to a study by researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. They asked participants to force happy or sad faces, then recount either a happy or sad story, or listen to happy or sad music. Then participants were asked to rate how well specific objects fit into categories, such as how well "bus," "airplane" and "camel" fit into the category "vehicle." People who had expressed discordant emotions in the previous experimental stage, such as smiling while telling a sad story, were more likely to rate "camel" and other atypical answers as highly belonging to the category. That suggests that conflicted emotions open the mind to less stereotypical thinking, the researchers say. (Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 2, No. 4, )

  • We might lose the ability to lie and to detect others' lies as we age, according to a study by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Researchers showed video clips of people either under the age of 30 or over the age of 60 to two groups of participants with average ages of 21 and 71. Speakers in the video clips either expressed their true feelings on a topic or lied about them. Researchers asked the participants to rate whether they thought the speakers were lying or not. For both the younger and older speakers, the older experimental group was worse at identifying the liars than was the younger group. Also, both groups were better able to detect liars in the older speakers than in the younger ones. Researchers suspect that declining working memory and executive functioning skills could underlie the decreased ability to lie and detect lies. (In press in Psychology and Aging)

  • PreschoolerPreschool can help kids overcome poverty-related disadvantages and succeed as adults, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Minnesota. They looked at longitudinal data from more than 1,400 people born between 1979 and 1980, most of whom were born in poverty. The researchers found that for those who attended preschool, 81.5 percent completed high school (compared with 77.5 percent for those who didn't attend preschool); 34.4 percent currently rank at a moderate or higher socioeconomic status (compared with 28.6 percent); 75.9 percent currently have health insurance (compared with 63.9 percent); and 16.5 percent reported abusing drugs or alcohol (compared with 23 percent). Preschool could give children an opportunity to escape the negative lifelong consequences that are often associated with childhood poverty, the researchers say. (Science, June 10, 2011)

  • Women at the fertile peak of their menstrual cycle might show increased prejudice against strong strangers of different races, according to a study at Michigan State University. The researchers showed women who were at different points in their menstrual cycle photos of men who either matched their own race or were of a different race and asked them to link each man with a physical and mental adjective, such as attractive and smart. Women who were entering the fertile periods of their cycle at the time of the experiment tended to provide less favorable adjectives to different-race men if they perceived those men to be particularly muscular. Researchers say the findings may reflect an evolutionary motivation to avoid sexually threatening strangers when women are most fertile. (In press in Psychological Science)

  • Ex-smokers may gain weight after kicking the habit because nicotine permanently impairs the brain's ability to signal when the stomach is full, says a study at Yale University. The researchers found that in addition to attaching itself to addiction-causing neuronal sites such as dopamine receptors, nicotine also attaches itself to a receptor on neurons in the hypothalamus, which helps regulate appetite. Mouse studies show that this receptor comes to rely on nicotine for normal functioning, so when nicotine is no longer present, the hypothalamus is left with a reduced ability to regulate appetite properly. Some antismoking drugs, like the drug cytisine, which isn't sold in the U.S., contain nicotine-like compounds that target this receptor, which might prevent post-cessation weight gain, researchers say. (Science, June 10, 2011)

  • Feet on scale"Low-fat" substitutes for fatty foods could cause weight gain rather than prevent it, say Purdue University researchers. They studied rats that were given either low-fat or high-fat Pringles, or a combination of the two. Rats that ate the combination gained more weight than either of the other two groups. Researchers posit that eating low-fat food trains the body to burn less fat in response to particular levels of caloric intake, which ultimately results in more weight gain than eating high-fat items by themselves. Eating foods that are naturally low in calories is a more reasonable dieting technique than consuming artificial fats, the researchers say. (Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 125, No. 4)