Cover Story

Thinking outside the cubicle

How do you get employees to be more creative? Research by Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile, PhD, finds that many of the strategies employers try—higher salaries, bonuses and encouraging competition—don't produce the great ideas. What does? Ensuring that employees are able to make daily progress on work they find meaningful—unencumbered by administrative hassles—and that they are comfortable sharing their ideas, she says.

In her plenary address, "Creativity, Productivity and Commitment: Revelations from the Work Diaries," Amabile will draw on her studies of nearly 12,000 employee work diaries to discuss how employees' feelings, motivations and perceptions about their workplace can boost or stifle creativity. Her findings, she says, reveal "what makes the difference between great days at work and terrible ones," when it comes to innovation.

Nice by nature

Philosophers have long argued that without civilization, humans would be as savage as wild animals. But recently, researchers have found evidence that some animals may not be so amoral after all, says primatologist Frans B.M. de Waal, PhD, of Emory University. At his plenary talk, "Ape to Angel: Primate Evolution and Moral Building Blocks," de Waal will discuss his research showing empathy, kindness and fairness among our primate cousins and other social animals.

For example, de Waal and his colleagues have observed chimps comforting one another after conflicts, caring for the old or sick, and sharing food. They have also conducted dozens of experiments exploring apes' prosocial tendencies and sense of fairness. In one study (PNAS, 2008) chimps exchanged tokens for food, and balked if they saw another chimp getting a better reward for the same token. This work, says de Waal, fits with other findings showing that we make moral decisions quickly, and that such decisions, rather than being made in the prefrontal cortex alone, also activate older, emotional areas of the brain.

"It's valuable to put human morality in the context of evolution," he says. "Instead of thinking we invented the whole thing, it now becomes part of neuroscience and biology, two disciplines I always like to combine with psychology."

What makes an evidence-based intervention work?

Evidence-based programs are a keystone of psychological research and intervention, yet research alone is rarely enough to ensure successful replication under different conditions—which is where implementation science comes in.

Implementation—such as training, mentoring and assessment, that enable one to put a program into practice—is crucial to the success of any program, says Dean Fixsen, PhD, co-director of the National Implementation Research Network, who will present the plenary address, "The Evidence-Based Program is Dead, Long Live the EBP!"

"Intervention is one thing, but implementation is something else entirely," Fixsen explains. "Making sure the right people are selected for the job, introducing them to the concepts, working with willing organizations and staff to train people in practical and effective skills, coaching them once trained—these elements work together to ensure that a program will have the effect you want it to have."

Will race matter in the 2012 election?

In 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president, much media speculation focused on how Americans' racial biases might affect the campaign. This year, with President Obama running for re-election, that speculation is more muted.

"A lot of people thought that Obama's victory meant that race wasn't involved in the outcome of the election," says Anthony Greenwald, PhD, of the University of Washington. "But it was."

At his plenary talk, Greenwald will discuss his research on implicit attitudes, race and presidential politics. In the 1990s, he and his colleagues developed the Implicit Association Test, designed to reveal people's unconscious attitudes toward race and other issues—deeply implanted biases that operated below the level of conscious thought. In 2008 and again in this election cycle, Greenwald is using the IAT to measure voters' attitudes toward the candidates.

"We've already found that [implicit] racial attitudes are involved with a preference for white Republican candidates over Obama, white Republican candidates over Herman Cain, and surprisingly Cain over Obama," he says.

Greenwald says that such implicit biases are strong enough to affect election outcomes—and they can have other societal impacts. "There's increasing acceptance of the idea that important pieces of human behavior are enacted without much or any thought," he says.

To try out Greenwald's Decision2012 Implicit Association Test online.

Bosses from hell

Bad bosses make for good comedy, as movies like "The Devil Wears Prada" attest. But for workers and the companies that hire them, subpar superiors are no laughing matter.

According to Robert Hogan, PhD, poor managers—who range from incompetent to tyrannical—do more than make workers' lives miserable. They also lose money. Research shows that ill-managed companies earn far fewer profits than well-managed ones, says Hogan, who is president of Hogan Assessment Systems, an international distributor of psychological assessments.

Worse, they cost people their health. Sixty-five percent to 75 percent of workers say the most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate supervisor, find studies by Hogan and others.  

"So these guys aren't just bad for business—they're killing people," Hogan asserts.

What's to be done? Psychological researchers need to pinpoint the best leadership qualities and interventions. In the field, practitioners need to use good assessment tools, develop training programs and suggest hiring practices based on these interventions. Many people fall into management jobs based on seniority, hierarchy or technical ability rather than personality and talent. Good leadership must be nurtured, and "bad leaders need to be confronted with their flaws," Hogan says.

A dolphin's tale

Some dolphins learn to use tools, while others don't. Georgetown University's Janet Mann, PhD, will explain why—and much more—in her plenary talk, "Growing up Dolphin." She will describe what she and her colleagues have learned during 25 years of research on the bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay off the coast of Australia—the only group of dolphins known to use tools in the wild.

"I will tell the story of how these animals grow up as individuals and meet the social and ecological challenges they face, including how to hunt, how to avoid sharks and how to make friends," says Mann.

Mann will explore what she calls the "dynamic complexity" of the dolphins' lives in the sea, forming alliances, raising young and foraging for food.

"Dolphins are big-brained, intelligent animals, and like humans, dolphins are individuals each navigating a complex social and physical environment in a unique way. How and why these patterns emerge is the focus of my research," she says.

Watch the dolphins of Shark Bay's hunting strategies in our digital edition.

Guiding social justice research

The relationship between research and human rights can seem theoretical, but for Donna Mertens, PhD, social justice is the fundamental principle that guides her research. Mertens, a professor in the department of educational foundations and research at Gallaudet University, has worked with underrepresented communities internationally to conduct mixed methods research on issues addressing human rights for indigenous people, people with disabilities, women's rights and sex workers. Mertens says her role is to ask the provocative questions and to engage communities that haven't had their voices heard or published.

Mertens's plenary address, "Transformative Mixed Methods Research," will address the consequences of accepting certain assumptions that guide psychological research. Mertens points out, for example, that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals do not mention people with disabilities. Several international organizations recognize that the goals cannot be achieved without including people with disabilities, and the lack of explicit attention to this group is linked to nations' limiting their collection of data about how these people are being served. If the goal is to improve human rights and social justice, then we need to start asking what that means in terms of methodology, she says.

"We don't recognize discrimination is around us all the time—and we do research without recognizing it," she adds. "I want people to question how we can include members of marginalized communities in ways that allow them to express their concerns, strengths and interests, to facilitate social change."

Why do people hurt themselves?

It's a question that has puzzled scholars for thousands of years. Research by Matthew Nock, PhD, of Harvard University, is finding that some people injure themselves to ease their emotional pain.

Using behavioral tests, questionnaires and heart rate measures, he's found that some people are soothed by cutting and similar behaviors, and that people who hurt themselves have a higher tolerance for pain than others do. His work has also revealed that teenagers are quick to move from just thinking about hurting themselves to trying it. Nock received a five-year MacArthur Fellowship to further his research on self-injury and suicide last year.

In his plenary talk, Nock will discuss his findings along with other advances in the understanding of self-harm and suicide and what work still needs to be done.

"Unfortunately, self-harm continues to be a leading cause of death worldwide and many fundamental questions remain unanswered," he says.

Promoting wellness through social justice

Using years of research on well-being, Isaac Prilleltensky, PhD, has designed an online game to help people live healthier, happier lives. He'll demonstrate the game and discuss the theories behind it at his plenary talk, "Wellness as Fairness: Individual, Interpersonal, Internet and Institutional Interventions."

Key to understanding well-being and how to promote it among different populations is appreciating the connection between wellness and social justice, says Prilleltensky, of the University of Miami.

"If we live in a society where there's a lot of equality and fairness, the chances are higher that the population is thriving," he says. "If we live in a society where justice is suboptimal or not so good, the population won't be thriving."

He'll then discuss interventions for improving well-being, including a multiplayer online game called "Wellness in Your Hands." In the game, players create avatars that first learn about issues of wellness and fairness and then play games with other avatars to increase wellness and justice in a virtual community.

"I will show how my game is supposed to work to improve wellness and fairness in real life," says Prilleltensky.

Immunizing against poor decisions

Record numbers of parents are not vaccinating their children, believing the false notion that vaccines contain mercury and cause autism.

Cornell University psychologist Valerie Reyna, PhD, believes her "fuzzy trace" theory can help parents make more informed decisions about this significant health issue.

The theory holds that people are driven by a quest for meaning. When we lack adequate information to support that meaning—particularly when we face threats of unknown origin—we use a "fuzzy trace" of background knowledge, past experience and beliefs about a topic's plausibility to create our own understanding, or "gist," of the situation. For example, parents may piece together the notions that mercury is a poison; that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine contained mercury; and that autism started to appear around the time children first began receiving the vaccine in the 1950s. From that, they form a "gist" that the MMR vaccine causes autism, despite the fact that MMR vaccines no longer contain mercury, and that with earlier versions, people vilified the wrong type of mercury—a form that would have killed a live vaccine.

Such beliefs are further fueled by anti-vaccination websites that make their case in compelling though erroneous ways, Reyna adds. To intervene, she suggests that health officials create equally strong narratives on official government health sites, which too often are mere lists of facts.

"You need to boil the content down to a meaningful gist that explains the importance and safety of vaccination in a way that makes sense to the public," she says.

Epigenetics: What you should know

Psychologists have long known that disorders can manifest differently in boys and girls, or that one gender is more susceptible to certain mental illnesses than the other. The link between these biological sex differences and the resulting gender differences in behavior has been studied primarily in terms of hormonal changes that occur immediately before and after birth. But as Emilie Rissman, PhD, has found, hormones don't fully explain all of the ways sexual difference manifests psychologically and neurologically.

For that, Rissman, professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics and research professor of endocrinology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, investigates the role of epigenetics—the process by which environmental factors like maternal stress or diet during pregnancy can alter gene transcription without changing actual DNA—in prenatal brain development.

Her talk, "What Every Psychologist Needs to Know About Epigenetics," will present evidence from her current research with mice that combinations of genes and environmental triggers work together to change "normal" social behaviors to "abnormal." "During critical periods of development, environmental factors can exacerbate gender differences" in psychological development, says Rissman.

This may explain why autism spectrum disorders, for example, are more prevalent among little boys and why girls with schizophrenia tend to be more functional than boys with the same diagnosis.

Virtual reality goes to war

War may be hell but, as Albert "Skip" Rizzo, PhD, points out, its urgency tends to drive innovations in medicine, rehabilitation and mental health in ways rarely seen in civilian life.

As associate director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California—and a self-described pacifist—Rizzo has been working with the Department of Defense to develop virtual reality simulations for treating service members with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, post-injury physical rehabilitation and other problems. His institute is also developing artificially intelligent (AI) virtual human computer programs, known as SimCoach, which allow veterans to interact confidentially with simulated behavioral health-care guides designed to promote anonymous self-assessment and break down barriers to care. This AI work is also creating virtual human standardized patients for clinical training in psychology and medicine.

In his plenary presentation, "Virtual Reality Goes to War: Innovations in Military Behavioral Health Care," Rizzo will discuss his work designing virtual exposure therapy for PTSD worlds that mimic high-intensity situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will also point to ways his research can be adapted for civilian use.

For a look at his work, visit Rizzo's library of virtual reality and SimCoach videos.

Science-based weight loss

We all know we need to eat more vegetables, but Barbara Rolls, PhD, is out to show us how this can help us manage our weight. The Helen A. Guthrie chair of nutrition sciences at Pennsylvania State University, Rolls studies the factors that influence people's food intake. She's also the creator of "The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet" (2012), which helps people find foods that they can eat lots of while still losing weight.

"What we've found is that people eat a pretty consistent weight of food—more consistent in weight than in the amount of calories they consume," Rolls says. To help reduce the number of calories in a meal, volumetrics advocates water-rich foods such as non-starchy vegetables like spinach and broth-based soups, to help keep full. The diet is backed by Rolls's own research. In a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, she found that hiding extra vegetables in the entrees served over a day decreased daily intake by 360 calories without much notice by participants.

Food for thought

Why do people crave chocolate? How did humans develop a preference for an innately offensive taste, like hot peppers? Why do they prefer "natural" things? What's the link between our food preferences and our sense of morality—why do we think of some foods as "good" and others as "bad"?

These are among the questions Paul Rozin, PhD, will address in his convention plenary talk. Rozin is perhaps best known for his early work on disgust and contagion. In one classic study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1986, he found that after watching an experimenter dunk a sterilized cockroach in a glass of juice, most people wouldn't even consider drinking the juice, though they knew that there was no risk of disease.

Over the decades, Rozin's focus has expanded to encompass the interplay of food, culture and morality, and what we can learn about a culture from studying its relationship with food. In one recent study, for example, he explored the fact that no synonym for the word "craving" exists in many languages, suggesting that the concept of "craving" food may be less relevant outside North America (Addictive Behaviors, 2010).

"My general interest is in how people relate to food, taking into account biological, cultural and psychological perspectives," he says.

Rethinking retirement

When most people think about retirement, they only consider the state of their financial portfolio—whether they have enough money to stop working. But just as important, says Nancy Schlossberg, EdD, is contemplating what she calls one's "psychological portfolio"—whether you are psychologically equipped to retire.

"Retirement is a career change requiring you to figure out a new life," she says. "The excitement of finding a new path—either paid or unpaid—and strengthening your psychological portfolio provides possibilities to live out alternative dreams."

In her plenary address for psychologists of all ages, "I Don't Need Your Rocking Chair: New Adventures in Retirement," Schlossberg will discuss how retirement choices can change one's sense of identity, as well as one's relationships, support systems and overall sense of purpose.

"This is important for everyone," say Schlossberg. "Psychologists are in a position to help others who are facing retirement, but they also have to have a strategy for themselves."

The science of team science

Northwestern University's Bonnie Spring, PhD, has a penchant for studying "wicked problems"—the challenges that can be teased apart best by a team of experts from different disciplines. As a professor of preventive medicine, psychology and psychiatry, she has become a specialist in developing treatments for health problems that often come bundled together, such as smoking, obesity and depression.

In her plenary presentation, "A Science of Team Science to Optimize Research and Practice," Spring will discuss how high-impact research increasingly involves interdisciplinary teams and how the emerging science of team science can help psychologists and others work on interdisciplinary teams to improve care. She will recommend that the members of an interdisciplinary research team execute a "pre-nuptial" collaboration agreement before beginning a project. She will also help to dispel the notion that conflict is harmful to teams.

"Psychology is one of the disciplines that can most greatly increase its impact by mastering the science of team science," she says.

The science of teen brains

In the eyes of the law, should adolescents be treated like children or adults? That's the kind of question developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg, PhD, of Temple University, fields regularly as an expert in adolescent brain development. And it's the focus of his plenary talk, "Should the Science of Adolescent Brain Development Influence Public Policy?"

The answer is a qualified "yes," he says. Both behavioral and neuroscience research on adolescent development can inform public policy, but it should be done with caution and not in every situation. And neuroscience data should not trump behavioral evidence.

"The public believes that we can look into someone's brain and tell how mature the person is," says Steinberg. "I'd rather make a decision about whether someone should be given a driver's license by giving him a driving test rather than giving him a brain scan."

Steinberg will explain what researchers know about the adolescent brain and what that knowledge means for legal policies, including driving age, voting age and how the criminal justice system should deal with juvenile offenders.

This is your brain on exercise

Wendy Suzuki, PhD, remembers the first time she realized just how much her brain benefited from her regular workout regimen. It was 2008 and she was bogged down with deadlines.

"Ideas flowed quicker and it was much easier to write grant applications," says Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University. "Everything just worked better when I was going to the gym regularly." It was a discovery that led her to launch a new line of research examining the effects of aerobic exercise on learning, memory and cognition in humans.

Suzuki's first study participants were a group of NYU undergraduates who enrolled in a course she was teaching. She spent the first hour of the class leading the students in aerobic exercise, then followed it with a 90-minute lecture on the effects of exercise on the brain. She found that the students showed significant improvement on a recognition memory task compared with a control class that did not participate in the exercise portion of the course. A second as-yet-unpublished study found that a single hour long gym trip improved students' working memory function and attention span.

Suzuki says her long-term term goal is to understand the specific brain mechanisms that underlie these changes, and share them with policymakers and educators.

Integrating psychology into health care

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a model of integrated, interdisciplinary health care in which mental health is a central focus, says Antonette Zeiss, PhD, the VA's chief consultant for mental health.

In her plenary talk, "Psychological Services for Veterans: Integral to Interdisciplinary VA Healthcare," Zeiss will explain VA psychologists' role as part of primary-care teams made up of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, social workers and other providers. In addition to helping the health-care teams work effectively with patients with mental health problems, these psychologists screen patients for mental health problems, provide brief, focused interventions and refer patients to mental health specialty care when needed, says Zeiss.

Zeiss will also discuss the VA's clinical practice guidelines, which require clinicians to use specific evidence-based psychotherapies. "Our clinical practice guidelines fit with what APA is doing to develop its own clinical practice guidelines," she says. "I hope that the VA's experience can be helpful as APA moves forward."