Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

Current Spotlights

Spotlights are feature stories presented by The University of Texas at Austin and the UT College of Liberal Arts.

Lessons on Personalities Help Teens Cope With Social Stressors, UT Study Says

A study by Assistant Professor David Yeager has found that teaching teens that social and personality traits can change helps them cope with social challenges such as bullying, which in turn can help mitigate stress and improve academic performance. The study was published in Psychological Science, and suggests teaching students that socially relevant traits are malleable, and not fixed, can make them feel better equipped to face social challenges, rather than viewing them as threats and diagnosing them as lasting realities. (6/20/16)

Sleep May Preserve Memory and Cognition in Aging Adults, UT Study Shows

New research by Psychology doctoral student Stephanie Sherman and Professor David Schnyer, the principal investigator of the UT Austin Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, has found that lifestyle changes, such as getting a good night’s rest, can help maintain memory function and may slow cognitive decline in older adults. The study suggests that undisrupted, deep sleep could slow down the process of cognitive decline—specifically memory loss. (5/19/16)

Genetic Potential for Intelligence Adversely Affected by Social Class in U.S. Only

Associate Professor Elliot Tucker-Drob's latest research has found that genetic influence on intelligence varies according to people’s social class in the United States, but not in Western Europe or Australia. He and University of Edinburgh psychology professor Timothy Bates analyzed data from 24,926 pairs of twins and siblings, finding that the relationship between genes, socioeconomic status and intelligence depended on which country the participants were from. (12/18/15)

Ostracized Children Use Imitation To Fit In, Study Finds

Postdoctoral researcher Rachel Watson-Jones is the lead author (with co-author Associate Professor Cristine Legare) of the study, “In-Group Ostracism Increases High-Fidelity Imitation in Early Childhood,” which found that the threat of ostracism influences children to imitate group behaviors as a means of re-affiliating. The study was published in Psychological Science in November 2015. (12/15/15)

Halloween is Not Scary to Young Kids; It’s Beneficial

Dr. Jacqueline Woolley, writes for Texas Perspectives about parents' fears on whether children can differentiate fantasy from reality during Halloween. Her research shows that "despite occasional errors, children are actually quite good at making the fantasy-reality distinction by the age of 3 or 4. Our research showed that preschool-age children use many of the same cues that adults use to make this distinction." (10/30/15) 

Spooky Research: Faculty Experts Explore Halloween Topics

Dr. Jacqueline Woolley, Chair of the Department of Psychology, tallks about "Superstitious Thinking and the Candy Witch" in a video that is part of a series of College of Liberal Arts "Spooky" research. Dr. Cristine Legare is also featured in a video about "The Intersection of Science and the Supernatural," and Psychology Postdoctoral Researcher Aiyana Willard talks about "The Basis of Belief". (10/29/15)

UT Austin Receives $4M to Develop Techniques for Brain Imaging & Manipulation

Psychology and Center for Perceptual Systems (CPS) Associate Professor Alex Huk, along with CPS colleagues Nicholas Priebe and Ila Fiete, are among the team that will receive three grants totaling $4 million to develop techniques for imaging and manipulating the activity of neurons in the brain. The funding is provided by the National Institutes of Health and is part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative launched last year by President Barack Obama. (10/2/15)

UT Austin Receives $2.4M to Study Social Lives’ Link to Health in Seniors

Research has suggested that people with stronger social networks live longer and with better health than those who are more isolated in old age, but we don't know why. The National Institute on Aging will fund a study on how social interactions improve the health of older adults. The study is lead by Karen Fingerman, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and the Department of Psychology and David Schnyer, a professor in the Department of Psychology, among others. (9/28/15)

David Yeager Recognized Nationally for Real-World Research

Assistant Professor of Psychology David Yeager will receive the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Robert B. Cialdini Award for his published studies on effectively providing criticism to children of all races. The paper, “Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide,” was published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in August 2013. (9/23/15)

Six Tips for Staying Sharp

As students return to classes after summer break, they may be finding it tough to get back into learning mode. Later in life, we may come up against similar challenges with learning and memory. Experts across campus, including psychology professors Ali Preston, Art Markman and Jennifer Beer, were asked for their best, research-based advice for staying mentally sharp throughout life. (8/11/15)

Genders Differ Dramatically in Evolved Mate Preferences

Psychology graduate student Daniel Conroy-Beam's recent study found that men’s and women’s ideas of the perfect mate differ significantly due to evolutionary pressures. The study of 4,764 men and 5,389 women in 33 countries and 37 cultures showed that sex differences in mate preferences are much larger than previously appreciated and stable across cultures. The researchers suggest that these patterns of mate preferences are far more linked to gender than any individual mate preference examined separately would suggest. (8/6/15)

Hormones Influence Unethical Behavior

Hormones play a two-part role in encouraging and reinforcing cheating and other unethical behavior, according to research from UT Austin professor of psychology Robert Josephs and his colleagues at Harvard University. With cheating scandals a persistent threat on college campuses and financial fraud costing businesses more than $3.7 trillion annually, UT Austin and Harvard researchers looked to hormones for more answers, specifically the reproductive hormone testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. (7/28/15)

Selective Imitation Shows Children are Flexible Social Learners, Study Finds

Dr. Cristine Legare and her colleagues have found that children flexibly choose when to imitate and when to innovate the behavior of others, demonstrating that children are precocious social learners. In order to function within their social groups, children have to learn both technical skills with instrumental goals, such as using a fork and knife to cut food, and social conventions with goals based on social conformity, such as forms of greeting (for example: handshakes, kissing and bowing). This research demonstrates that children are sensitive to the distinction between instrumental and conventional goals and flexibly adapt their behavior accordingly. (7/27/15)

As new graduate students in the neuroscience department, Kenneth Latimer and Jacob Yates did a class project in a business class that eventually resulted in the prestigious journal, Science, as well as a new tool for neuroscience. Using data on the activity of neurons collected in the lab of Psychology Professor Alex Huk, the two proved that individual neurons act like a switch, flipping from undecided to decided, rather than the previously held assumption that individual neurons interpret which way an object is moving after going through stages of indecisiveness, gradually becoming more certain about what it is the brain sees. Huk and former Psychology Assistant Professor Jonathan Pillow, co-mentors of both Latimer and Yates, intend to follow up this work in a collaborative grant. (7/9/15)

UT Researchers: Running May Help Treat PTSD

The physical benefits of exercise, particularly running, have long been established. But researchers have begun to expand the understanding of mental benefits as well. In a study published in Cognitive Behavior Therapy this spring, UT researchers, including co-author Associate Professor of Psychology Mark Powers, found that running could help alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). (7/7/15)

Study Links Heartbeat to Female Libido

Sexual dysfunction in women can be linked to low resting heart rate variability, a finding that could help clinicians treat the condition, according to a study by co-author and UT Austin psychologist Cindy Meston and graduate students Amelia Stanton and Carey Pulverman. (6/19/15)

Unlearning Social Biases While We Sleep

Can we learn to rid ourselves of our implicit biases regarding race and gender? A new study lead by Psychology postdoctoral fellow Xiaoqing Hu (Dr. Bertram Gawronski's Social Cognition Lab), indicates that sleep may hold an important key to success in such efforts. (5/29/15)

Six Tips for Staying Sharp

Psychology Professors Alison PrestonArt Markman and Jennifer Beer offer their best, research-based advice for staying mentally sharp throughout life. (5/11/15)

Depression: Making Treatment Personal

(from Life & Letters, the magazine of UT's College of Liberal Arts) Christopher Beevers, psychology professor and director of the Institute for Mental Health Research (IMHR) at The University of Texas at Austin is taking a translational research approach in the IMHR—applying basic research to improve health and well-being— to use discoveries from genetics, cognitive neuroscience and animal research to better understand mental illness and improve treatments. (4/30/15)

Train Yourself to Be More Creative

Creativity is a skill you can build, not a talent you either have or you don't, says psychology and marketing professor Art Markman. "For mental skills like creativity, few people know enough about the way their minds work to be able to treat it like a skill," as opposed to an innate talent, he writes in a recent "Work Smart" column for Fast Company. (4/29/15)

Dean of Graduate Studies to Serve as Interim Provost at UT Austin

Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies Judith H. Langlois has been named interim provost at The University of Texas at Austin. She will begin May 26 and serve in that position while the university searches for a permanent provost to replace Gregory L. Fenves, who will become UT Austin’s next president. An expert in infant and child development, Langlois joined the university’s Psychology Department in 1973. She has twice served as interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and also served as interim dean of Graduate Studies before assuming her current post in 2013. (4/22/15)

Boston Bombing Shows the Power of Familial Ties

(by Dr. William B. Swann Jr., Professor of Social and Personality Psychology & Michael D. Buhrmester, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford)

For many, the recent trial of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has relit the inevitable question: “How could they?” One answer lies within something called familial ties, and they’re more powerful and prevalent than most people realize. (4/14/15)

Shakespeare Wrote Contested Play, Suggests Psychological Text Analysis

Through the use of text-analysis software, University of Texas at Austin psychology researchers have identified William Shakespeare as the author of the long-contested play “Double Falsehood,” as described this week in the journal Psychological Science. Questioning the authorship of the works of famous writers has always been a form of blood sport in the humanities, said James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the university and co-author of the study. Until recently, he said, social scientists only watched the battles from the sidelines, but no more. (4/10/15)

Clinicians Need Reliable Predictors to Identify Who Will Attempt Suicide

(by Dr. Christopher Beevers, Professor and Director of the Institute for Mental Health Research)

Approximately 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable illness such as clinical depression or substance use disorders. These mental health disorders are treatable with medications and psychotherapy. However, the vast majority of people with a diagnosable mental health or substance misuse condition will not contemplate or attempt suicide. Simply using a diagnosis as a risk factor for suicide will produce many false positives and does not go far enough for identifying those at highest risk for suicide. Ideally, clinicians need a set of reliable predictors that will identify who will attempt suicide. (4/2/15)

In Memoriam: Dr. Janet Taylor Spence, Professor Emeritus

The College of Liberal Arts is saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Janet Taylor Spence, Professor Emeritus, on March 16, 2015. She held the Alma Cowden Madden Professorship of Liberal Arts and the Ashbel Smith Professorship of Psychology and Educational Psychology. A major figure in American psychology, Spence was a faculty member of the UT Austin psychology department from 1967 to 1997 and served as Chair from 1969 to 1972. (3/29/15)

Men's Preference for Certain Body Types Has Evolutionary Roots

A psychology study co-authored by Psychology Professor David Buss sheds new light on today's standards of beauty, attributing modern men's preferences for women with a curvy backside to prehistoric influences. The study, published online in Evolution and Human Behavior, investigated men's mate preference for women with a "theoretically optimal angle of lumbar curvature," a 45.5 degree curve from back to buttocks allowing ancestral women to better support, provide for, and carry out multiple pregnancies. (3/19/15)

US News Ranks Four Schools, 50 Programs at UT Austin Among the Nation's Best

According to U.S. News and World Report's 2016 edition of "Best Graduate Schools," more than 50 science, social science, humanities and professional programs and disciplines at UT Austin are ranked in the Top 15 nationally. The rankings are based on quantitative and qualitative measures, including GRE scores, student/faculty ratio, research expenditures, job placement success and ratings of academic experts, national faculty members and administrators. The Psychology Department is ranked #14 nationally in the Social Sciences and Humanities category, while the Clinical Psychology area is ranked #11 in the Health Disciplines (other than Nursing) category. (3/10/15)

We Need to Protect Ourselves From Our Phones

(by Dr. Art Markman, Annabel Iron Worsham Centennial Professor)

When it comes to cellphones, we are no better than trained rats in a box. In Austin, San Antonio and several other Texas cities, it is illegal to text or hold a phone while driving. It is also illegal to hold a phone while driving in 14 states and to text while driving in 44 states. So, why are people still using their phones while driving, even though most of us know it leads to hundreds of thousands of injuries in distracted driving crashes each year? Because as it turns out, most of us are addicted to our phones. (3/17/15)

This Semester I'm Working On ... Researching Autism and Parental Stress

In a new series that offers a glimpse at the UT experience, as told by students, faculty and staff. Follow the series to see what Longhorns are passionately pursuing during their time on campus, senior and Psychology major Kassandra Martinez describes her research on how Spanish-speaking mothers of children with autism experience and cope with parenting stress. (3/9/15)

Short Words Predict Academic Success

The smallest, most forgettable words in admissions essays can tell us in advance how students will perform in college, according to a new study co-authored by Psychology Professor James Pennebaker. The new study used 50,000 admissions essays written by prospective college students, enabling the researchers to connect language use to later college performance. It turned out that how students use small words is related to subsequent GPA. For example, students who heavily use the word I tend to do worse in class, and students who heavily use the words the and a do better. (1/7/15)

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