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In Focus

Exploring the Science of Behavior

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY DAVID RYAN 

What drives a person’s behavior? Collecting information from various sources? Life experiences? Personality? All of the above? Five professors in the Department of Psychology are turning a trained eye to examining what fuels our habits, addictions -- and how to improve quality of life challenges.;

A LOT OF SMOKE 

Exposure to any level of cigarette and cigar smoke may put people at risk for future lung disease, but a rising trend known as “hyping” could be sending the wrong message about how to avoid those dangers. 

Known by a variety of names, “hyping,” “champing” and “freaking” a cigarillo — a smaller, leaner type of cigar — is believed by many to significantly reduce the amount of cancer-causing properties associated with tobacco products. 

“Hyping” a cigarillo means modifying the product by removing an inner layer of tobacco. Some people who modify their cigarillos believe this liner to be the “cancer paper,” and that removing it makes it safer to smoke. 

“To this day, we don’t know where this idea came from that this is a ‘cancer paper,’” said Melissa Blank, assistant professor of psychology. “Nobody has been able to find anything in the literature about the origins of this practice.” 

While researchers continue to look for the root of the practice, Blank, along with Drs. Aashir Nasim, Caroline Cobb and Thomas Eissenberg at Virginia Commonwealth University, examined other claims of the practice, including exposure to carbon monoxide and nicotine. 

Removing the internal layer of tobacco was not found to alter the level of nicotine exposure, nor did it alter the perception of satisfaction with the product. 

It did, however, provide a significant reduction in the amount of carbon monoxide taken in by the smoker. These findings match one other study previously conducted on the practice. 

“Something about this practice may generate less carbon monoxide than other elements,” Blank said. “That is, if you remove that component, you may get decreased exposure to carbon monoxide acutely.” 

A possible explanation for the reduction in carbon monoxide exposure is the aeration of the tobacco. By removing the inner layer, more air may be drawn in while the cigarillo is burning, much in the same way “light” cigarettes are marketed. Another explanation Blank explained, could be that the cigarillo just didn’t contain the same amount of tobacco as an unmodified product. 

Blank previously examined similar claims with the tobacco product. But as new technologies such as e-cigarettes and vaping emerge, so too will new ideas and claims about how to stem their side effects. 

“This popular practice among cigarillo smokers just keeps getting perpetuated by young people,” Blank said. “(Hyping) doesn’t mean you’re reducing your carbon monoxide to a level that’s going to help you long-term with your health. That’s like saying ‘I used to eat 10 Oreos but now I eat eight.’” 

Strough and Shook

WHAT FACTORS DRIVE OLDER ADULTS' DECISION MAKING? 

In 2050, the total number of Americans aged 65 and older will be 88 million, double the number estimated for 2010. 

As an economic and political force, researchers say that older adults hold a tremendous amount of social power. A new West Virginia University study is examining what factors contribute to older adults’ decisions. 

“Most of the research that has been done has utilized younger adults as participants,” said Natalie Shook, principal investigator on the project and assistant professor of psychology. “We’ve got a lot of information regarding the psychological decision-making processes that guide younger adults’ behavior. But very little work has explored older adults.” 

The study is supported by a three-year $458,547 National Science Foundation grant. JoNell Strough, also a professor in the Department of Psychology, serves as co-principal investigator. 

In the study, WVU researchers used an activity that explores attitude formation called “Bean Fest.” The game uncovers how people process positive and negative information by presenting them with novel stimuli, referred to as beans. Points are rewarded for identifying good and bad beans correctly. 

Research has shown that decision-making changes by age. Many have attributed this to causes such as declines in cognitive processing and health associated with age. But not all decisions get worse with age. Some get better. 

Understanding how people perceive positive and negative information may provide a window into age-related differences in decision-making. Young adults typically focus on the negative rather than the positive, using it diagnostically to inform their decisions. 

This negativity bias doesn’t necessarily generalize, Shook said. Data indicate that as we age, we start to shift toward a positivity bias, and this could affect decisions. 

“There is unprecedented growth in the population that’s going to be 65 and older ,” Strough said. “P eople that age tend to control a lot of the assets in the U.S. – a lot of the finances and wealth are held by older people. The types of decisions they make with their money, about their health, are going to have implications on society as a whole.” 

Turaino

DOES BEING CONSCIENTIOUS REDUCE WEAR AND TEAR ON THE BODY? 

Research from WVU and the Midlife Development in the United States study suggests that an individual’s personality traits are associated with the wear and tear their bodies experience during adulthood. 

Approximately 900 adults from across the country between the ages of 34 and 84 reported to a clinical research center and answered questions about their health, medication use and personality traits. The personality traits, commonly known as the Big 5, are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These traits represent the basic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions that make individuals alike, yet different. 

The traits, researchers say, are strongly associated with several aspects of both subjective and objective health and well-being. Specifically, conscientious persons — those who are thorough, goal-oriented, and responsible in many aspects of their life — seem to have better physical health. 

Findings suggest that an individual’s personality can influence how their bodies react to stress and disease. 

“Being more conscientious on a day-to-day basis, such as being more organized, responsible and planning your daily schedule might not only help you lead a more successful life … but long term it may result in better physiological health.” 
Nicholas Turiano , assistant professor of psychology 

Clinic staff also measured 24 different aspects of physiological health, such as blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, circulating stress hormone levels and immune function. Higher levels of those physiological measurements suggest an increased wear and tear the body experiences from both environmental and psychological stressors ranging from sickness and disease to prolonged periods of psychological stress. 

Researchers found that participants scoring higher on conscientiousness had lower levels of wear and tear on their body. These goal-oriented individuals had better function in several physiological systems, including cholesterol and glucose levels, and healthier heart rate function. 

Kinsey

COMBINING OVER-THE-COUNTER MEDS, EXPERIMENTAL DRUGS COULD PROVIDE MORE EFFECTIVE ARTHRITIS PAIN RELIEF 

A mixture of over-the-counter medicine and experimental drugs could be just what the doctor ordered to provide more effective pain relief for arthritis sufferers. 

Currently, those with arthritis-related pain and mobility issues account for 44 million outpatient visits each year, according to the Arthritis Foundation. A new study, led by Steven Kinsey, combines existing over-the-counter medicines (such as Aleve and Tylenol) and experimental drugs in smaller doses to see if they work better together than either drug alone. 

“ We want to reduce pain, but more than that, we want to restore people’s function.” Steven Kinsey

The University has been awarded $395,120 from the National Institutes of Health to help find new methods of relief for an affliction that is the leading cause of disability in the United States. 

So far, Kinsey said, promising laboratory work with laboratory mice subjects has shown that the mice have increased mobility after receiving the new drug treatments. 

Improving the quality of life for arthritis sufferers is a cause that unexpectedly hit close to home for Kinsey. 

The disease is so commonplace that it’s often brushed aside, Kinsey said, despite so many people suffering — or not knowing they suffer — from it. Until recently, Kinsey wasn’t aware his family had experienced arthritis pain. 

On the day the National Institutes of Health reviewed Kinsey’s grant, he was home sick with his first bout of gout — a form of arthritis causing severe pain and swelling of the joints. The Arthritis Foundation estimates at least 6.1 million Americans have experienced such an attack. 

Such numbers highlight the need for new treatments to combat those effects. 

“The goal is to restore function to get people back to work,” Kinsey said. 

Kinsey is a biomedical researcher with specializations in behavioral neuroscience. His research interests include stress and inflammation. 

Photo:

Melissa Blank

Photo Caption:

Melissa Blank