Obesity, Lady Gaga, and Video Games: Highlights from the 2012 APA Convention

From August 2nd through the 5th, the American Psychological Association (APA) hosted its 120th annual convention in Orlando, Florida. Below are some of my favorite moments of the meeting.

2012 APA Convention Opening Session Video

The video above nicely summarizes the wide variety of work that APA engages in. 

APA’s Council Approved $3 Million Aimed at Helping to Increase Number of Accredited Internship Slots

The growing imbalance between the number of psychology graduate students who need a clinical internship to complete their degree requirements and the availability of those internships has reached crisis proportions, according to the American Psychological Association. APA has called on the entire psychology graduate education community to work together in the face of the multifaceted imbalance problem. In an effort to help address the problem, APA’s Council of Representatives voted this week to fund a $3 million internship stimulus program.

APA's $3 million internship stimulus program will raise standards of training and could shift the momentum of the internship crisis. It is one of the most important actions Council has taken in recent years.

I was proud to vote "yes" and join the majority of APA Council Members in approving the Internship Stimulus Package. 

I was proud to vote "yes" and join the majority of APA Council Members in approving the Internship Stimulus Package. 

From brain to mouth: The psychology of obesity

In fact, food is everywhere at any time, and advertising is an additional lure, says psychologist Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "We've been completely retrained to think that large portions are acceptable, that eating throughout the day is acceptable, that eating late at night is acceptable, that eating in the car is acceptable," he says. "All the boundaries that would put limits around eating have been exploded."

The obesity epidemic was a main theme of the convention and the article above summarizes the influence of culture, self-control, and stigma. The most sobering finding I learned came from the opening session of the conference - APA President Dr. Suzanne Bennett Johnson stated that if current trends continue, for the first time in recent history the next generation of Americans will have a shorter life expectancy than the current.

APA President Dr. Suzanne Bennett Johnson with Drs. Kelly Brownell and Rena Wing during the opening session of the APA Convention.

APA President Dr. Suzanne Bennett Johnson with Drs. Kelly Brownell and Rena Wing during the opening session of the APA Convention.

The wide variety of obesity programming highlighted the multiple systemic factors influencing this epidemic. Dr. Kelly Brownell described the need to regulate the food industry (similar to the tobacco industry) while Dr. Rena Wing outlined the efficacy of behavioral interventions for obesity and their ability to reduce the development of diabetes. Dr. David B. Allison identified other influences on obesity including pollutants, air conditioning, and exposure to light. Graduate student Amanda M. Roberts described her research which indicates how physicians discuss obesity with their patients influences the motivation to change weight, diet, and behavior. Dr. Barbara J. Rolls added that portion size, nutritional value, and the amount of calories in foods are critical components of obesity epidemic.   

Related to the psychology of health, Dr. Wendy Suzuki overviewed her findings on the relationship between exercise and improved learning and memory while Dr. Trent Petrie described how fitter kids have better grades. 

What savvy grad students have in common with Lady Gaga

“She’s known for her larger-than-life theatrics,” says Mattu. “That is very intentional. The outfits and transformations are to keep the public focused on her work and draw their attention away from other aspects of her life,” he said, referring to an interview she did on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper.

APA writer Sadie Dingfelder summarized my session (Digital, Transparent, and Responsive: Welcome to the 21st Century Clinical Practice) by the describing the need for psychologists to intentionally develop a presence on the web. Read more about controlling your online identity here and watch the 60 minutes interview that inspired this talk. 

Post-traumatic Growth in Japan and Turkey

Both groups experienced recent trauma — the Japanese tsunami and the war in Iraq, respectively. In their studies, the researchers in this session found that while post-traumatic growth is an American-founded and studied concept, it was evident in both Turkey and Japan. However, measuring culture is essential when assessing post-traumatic growth. Specifically, Japanese culture’s emphasis on the collective good over individual interests is important when exploring trauma psychology, as is the understanding that Iraqi Turkmen have endured generations of war and civil unrest.

Along with other trends in positive psychology, research in post-traumatic growth focuses on how positive changes can occur in the aftermath of crises and it is wonderful to see this research integrating an international perspective. 

Why Do People Hurt Themselves?

Using behavioral tests, questionnaires and heart rate measures, [Dr. Matthew Nock] 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.

Dr. Nock's original paper provides a great summary of why nonsuicidal self-injury (e.g. cutting and burning oneself) occurs. In my experience, treatments such as dialectical behavior therapy have both a sound theoretical and evidence based rational for the treatment of nonsuicidal self-injurious behavior. 

What Makes an Evidence-Based Intervention Work?

“Intervention is one thing, but implementation is something else entirely,” Dr. Dean Fixsen says. “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.”

As Dr. Fixsen stated, "evidence based treatments won't just jump off the journal pages...". Most resources are diverted towards the development of evidence based treatments, not the implementation of science into practice. Successful implementation requires having trained individuals use interventions that have passed field tests in environments that have a culture which support evidence based treatments. Under the direction of properly trained clinicians, Parent Child Interaction Therapy is a great model of how successful evidence based programs can work. You can download a monolith of Dr. Fixsen's research here.

Parent Child Interaction Therapy is a great example of an evidence-based intervention at work. Photo courtesy of Dr. Larissa Niec's psychology lab. 

Parent Child Interaction Therapy is a great example of an evidence-based intervention at work. Photo courtesy of Dr. Larissa Niec's psychology lab. 

Dr. David Barlow also discussed strategies to increase the spread of evidence based treatments while Dr. Karen Schreck identified the media's failure in pushing non-scientific treatment of autism to the public. 

‘Power Sports’ and Bullying

Children who participate in “power sports,” such as wrestling, boxing and weight lifting, appear more likely to exhibit bullying behavior than kids not involved in these sports, according to Dan Olweus, PhD. Olweus, recipient of the 2012 APA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy, presented new research looking at 505 girls and 483 boys from Norway, ages 11 to 13. This two-year longitudinal study found more bullying among those who played power sports.

The study also controlled for a self-selection bias (i.e. more aggressive kids choose "power sports") and found that even among kids who didn't originally choose "power sports" the effect of these sports led to more bullying. This study, along with a long line of research going back to the landmark "Bobo Doll" study, demonstrates the power of modeling behavior. 

"Power sports" are linked to more aggressive behavior in children. Photo by Ron Wise. 

"Power sports" are linked to more aggressive behavior in children. Photo by Ron Wise. 

First-Job Negotiation Tips

“Don’t respond to your amygdala; listen to your frontal lobe,” said Anne Marie Albano, PhD, of Columbia University Medical School. “Say, ‘Thank you very much. I’m very interested,’ and then ask for a formal job offer letter.” You need to get the offer on paper because even if a department chair wants to hire you, funding can dry up or a position can be eliminated altogether, said the presenters. “Don’t be railroaded into saying yes to a verbal offer,” Albano emphasized.

Dr. Albano was one of my early mentors in psychology and taught me everything I know about treating children and adolescents. Here, she provided sound advice for early career psychologists on the business of psychology, a topic that is rarely discussed in graduate school. 

The Lesser-Known Benefits of Video Games

Video games improve kids’ executive skills by forcing them to plan their attacks and use the right tools to advance through game levels, the speakers said. Games also improve kids’ self-efficacy, expand their identities, boost their cognitive flexibility and self-control, encourage their intrinsic motivation and build social connections. “Joy of mastery and really positive emotions can come from gaming and when you are a kid who has experienced a lot of failures, this is important,” said Rutledge.

Technologies such as the Xbox Kinect increase the sophistication of video games.

Technologies such as the Xbox Kinect increase the sophistication of video games.

As video games continue to become a sophisticated form of entertainment, healthy and moderate use as modeled by parents who themselves grew up with video games will end the stigma society has attached to this media. For more on using video games to improve learning, visit LearningWorks for Kids.

Check back next week for my detailed post on psychology icon Dr. Philip Zimbardo's presentation "The Anatomy of a TED Talk", my favorite presentation from the APA Convention.