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Research Roundup
October 20, 2009, Volume 56, No. 08

Gun Possession of Questionable Value in an Assault

In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun. The study was released online in September in the American Journal of Public Health, in advance of print publication in November 2009.

“This study helps resolve the long-standing debate about whether guns are protective or perilous,” notes study author Dr. Charles C. Branas, associate professor of epidemiology. “Will possessing a firearm always safeguard against harm or will it promote a false sense of security?”

Penn researchers found that almost five Philadelphians were shot every day over the course of the study and about one of these five people died.  The research team concluded that, although successful defensive gun uses are possible and do occur each year, the chances of success are low. People should rethink their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures, the study concluded. Suggestions to the contrary, especially for urban residents who may see gun possession as a defense against a dangerous environment should be discussed and thoughtfully reconsidered.

A 2005 National Academy of Science report concluded that little is known about the impact of gun possession on homicide or the utility of guns for self-defense. Past studies explored the relationship between homicides and having a gun in the home, purchasing a gun or owning a gun. These studies, unlike the Penn study, did not address the risk or protection that having a gun might create for a person at the time of a shooting.

Penn researchers investigated the link between being shot in an assault and a person’s possession of a gun at the time of the shooting. As identified by police and medical examiners, they randomly selected 677 cases of Philadelphia residents who were shot in an assault from 2003 to 2006. Six percent of these cases were in possession of a gun when they were shot.

Dr. Therese S. Richmond, School of Nursing; Dr. Dennis P. Culhane, School of Social Policy & Practice; Dr. Thomas R. Ten Have, and Dr. Douglas J. Wiebe, both from the School of Medicine, are co-authors.

Miscalculations of Weight and Caloric Intake

Penn psychologists have identified a cognitive shortcut, or heuristic, they call “Unit Bias,” which causes people to ignore vital, obvious information in their decision-making process, that points to a fundamental flaw in the modern, evolved mind and may also play a role in the American population’s 30 years of weight gain.

Researchers who focus on the cognitive aspects that contribute to obesity conducted several studies with college-age participants in which the subjects were asked to estimate the weight of adult women from either photographs or a live presentation by models. Other student participants were asked to estimate the calories in one of two actual meals. Both meals contained the same foods, but one had larger portion sizes than the other.

The results demonstrated that when estimating the body weight of women, participants apparently disregard or ignore the provided height information and focus solely on the width of the model. When estimating calories, study participants assumed portion sizes were culturally typical and guessed no caloric differences between small and large portions.

The study suggests that there are situations where critical dimensions to understanding are devalued or ignored. In these studies specifically, participants estimated body weight based on the model’s shape even though height information was provided in the photographs or directly available with live models. Meanwhile, participants devalued or completely ignored other parameters critical to an accurate judgment.

The researchers believe that the negative artifacts of the evolved mind may be directly connected with America’s obesity epidemic. “It used to be that food was scarce, and you ate what was available because you didn’t know where your next meal would come from,” said Dr. Andrew Geier, lead author from the department of psychology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. “That is not the case anymore. Although we have yet to prove this, we believe that the ecology of eating in the current food environment has become an example of the atypical situations demonstrated in this new article, which may be an explanation for why almost 70% of American adults are either overweight or obese. This represents a cognitive explanation for why America is gaining so much weight. The eating environment has morphed into an atypical scenario where our usually helpful mental mechanisms betray us.”

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, was written by Dr. Geier and Dr. Paul Rozin of the department of psychology.

Americans Reject Tailored Advertising

Contrary to what many marketers claim, most Americans do not want online advertisements tailored by marketers to their specific interests, according to a consumer privacy study by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology at UC Berkeley School of Law (Berkeley Law), and the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn. In Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities that Enable It, 66% of adult Americans reject tailored ads. Not only that, when informed of three common ways that marketers collect information to target the ads, even higher percentages—between 73% and 86%—say they don’t want tailored advertising.

The study is the first nationally representative telephone (wireline and wireless, n=1000) survey that explores Americans’ opinions about behavioral targeting, a controversial issue now under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission and other government policymakers. Behavioral targeting ads are produced by following users’ actions over time and then creating sales pitches based on those actions. The report also presents Americans’ understanding of and attitudes toward privacy laws.

Dr. Joseph Turow, lead author and the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication of the Annenberg School, noted that even a majority of young adults do not want tailored advertising. “More than half of 18-24 year olds reject it. Contrary to consistent assertions by marketers, young adults have as strong an aversion to being followed online as do older adults.”

The Berkeley-Annenberg team found that 92% of those polled agree there should be a law that requires “websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual, if requested to do so.” Sixty-three percent believe advertisers should be legally required to delete information about their internet activity immediately, whether requested or not.

Co-authors of the report are Jennifer King, a former research fellow with Berkeley Law and Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer and research fellow at Berkeley Law.

The full report is available at www.asc.upenn.edu/news/2009/TAILORED%20ADVERTISING.pdf

Visual Learners Convert Words to Pictures and Vice Versa

A Penn psychology study, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to scan the brain, reveals that people who consider themselves visual learners, as opposed to verbal learners, have a tendency to convert linguistically presented information into a visual mental representation. The more strongly an individual identified with the visual cognitive style, the more that individual activated the visual cortex when reading words.

The opposite also appears to be true from the study’s results. Those participants who considered themselves verbal learners were found under fMRI to have brain activity in a region associated with phonological cognition when faced with a picture, suggesting they have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations.

It has long been thought that propensities for visual or verbal learning styles influence how children acquire knowledge successfully and how adults reason in every-day life; however, there was no empirical link to this hypothesis from cognitive neuroscience.

“Often, job applicants are required to offer opinion on whether they consider themselves visual or verbal learners,” Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill, professor in the department of psychology and a member of Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, said. “Some school districts even require students to wear buttons identifying themselves as visual or verbal learners. Until this study, however, there was no direct evidence linking these cognitive styles to specific neural systems in the brain.”

In the study, visual and verbal cognitive styles were measured in 18 subjects by a self-report exam called the Verbalizer–Visualizer Questionnaire (VVQ). A standard intelligence test was used to grade visual against verbal learning styles, then measured cognitive abilities. Participants subsequently participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment.

During the fMRI session, participants performed a more sophisticated version of the childhood board game Memory, involving both words and pictures.

Results of the study demonstrated a pattern of activity in modality-specific areas of the brain that distinguished visual from verbal cognitive styles. The areas did correspond with prior knowledge of brain utilization. During word-based tasks, activity in a functionally defined brain region that responded to viewing pictorial stimuli, the fusiform gyrus, correlated with self-reported visualizer ratings on the VVQ test.

In contrast, activity in a phonologically related brain region, the supramarginal gyrus, correlated with the verbalizer dimension of the VVQ during the picture-based condition. These findings suggest that modality-specific cortical activity underlies processing in visual and verbal cognitive styles.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted by Dr. Thompson-Schill and was led by post-doctoral fellow Dr. David Kraemer and co-authored by alumna, Lauren Rosenberg.


Almanac - October 20, 2009, Volume 56, No. 08