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Psychology

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell - Research

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My program of research brings together investigations of human decision-making, health psychology, and clinical psychology. In particular, I am interested in promoting physical and mental health behaviors (e.g., using sunscreen, seeking out social support). Although the average person has many opportunities to adopt behaviors that increase physical health and mental well-being, it can be challenging to carry out these behaviors regularly. My research objective is to tackle the problem of failing to do “what’s best” for one’s physical and mental health by determining how to:

  • persuade people with mood disorders (such as depression) to adopt behaviors that will improve their mental health.
  • understand the mechanisms explaining the differential impact of various types of persuasive appeals.
  • enhance the likelihood that depressed individuals receive the social support they need.
  • promote the application of research-based findings in “real-world” clinical settings.

Specifically, my research program investigates the role of message framing (i.e., taking objectively equivalent information and describing it in importantly different ways) in promoting physical and mental health behaviors. I began this line of research in the physical health domain, i.e., encouraging people to use sunscreen in order to prevent skin cancer. In doing this work, my focus expanded to include emotion’s impact on decision-making, and I became particularly interested in how people with major depressive disorder make decisions about their mental health. In addition, I am researching the mechanism by which message framing affects one’s choice to perform health behaviors. Ultimately, the goal of my work is to enhance individuals’ motivation to perform important physical and mental health behaviors by using carefully worded health messages.

In order to carry out this research at a predominately undergraduate institution, I co-created the Behavioral Health and Social (BHS) psychology research lab with Associate Professor Brian Detweiler-Bedell. The BHS Lab utilizes a novel means of involving undergraduates in the research process, making the most of their abilities and efforts by laddering their experiences. More specifically, Brian and I designed a model that organizes research into hierarchical, three-student teams. Each of our BHS Lab teams works on a separate project, with a senior or advanced psychology major (team leader) supervising a younger major and a student new to psychology (team associate and assistant, respectively). This model reflects the collaborative nature of experimental psychology, ladders the experiences of undergraduates, and allows projects to progress over an extended period of time. We liken the capabilities of each team to those of a highly motivated graduate student, and in many ways the teams are superior (i.e., total time commitment, the resource of many minds, and the ability of members to specialize according to their strengths). During the academic year, I directly supervise two or three BHS Lab teams (and Brian supervises an additional two or three teams). Ideally, our team assistants advance from novices to accomplished team leaders, and as a result, our laddered teams involve undergraduates in a caliber of research usually reserved for graduate students.

We have found that BHS Lab team members acquire the skills necessary to become outstanding graduate students at the most competitive graduate schools. They learn to generate creative research ideas, design studies, write research proposals, recruit participants, collect data, analyze data using statistical software, write results in APA style, and give formal presentations of research findings both on campus and at national meetings. Many of our team leaders have decided to pursue doctoral degrees in social, health, or clinical psychology, and we attribute this extraordinary level of interest and success in pursuing graduate study in large part to their experiences in the BHS Lab; the laddered approach of our team-based model is extremely effective in encouraging students to progress to the next level of inquiry and intellectual challenge.

I strongly believe that one of my central goals as an educator is to provide unique, hands-on, intensive training to undergraduates so that they can continue to work in research environments. This includes preparing some of our students to advance in the field of psychology by going on to doctoral programs, but it also equally includes giving students research skills that they can use in a business environment, in law, as research-practitioners, and as teachers. The BHS Lab team model is novel, and it is an excellent way of having students learn from faculty as well as from one another while making significant strides on a research project. A grant of $149,700 from the National Science Foundation’s Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program supported the further development of our laddered team model and its dissemination to colleagues at other schools who would like to involve undergraduates more often and at a higher level in their research through the publication of our book, Doing Collaborative Research in Psychology: A Team-Based Guide.

Psychology

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