March 12, 2013

The Scientist: Prof. Vivan Zayas ’94 Researches Relationships

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Correction Appended

What if the picture of your mother on your desk was not just a decoration? What if seeing the picture everyday unconsciously boosted your positive thinking, improved your working memory, and even changed how you behaved?

Prof. Vivian Zayas ’94, psychology, investigates the behavior of close relationships, and how these relationships can affect our day to day lives. As director of the Personality, Attachment and Control Lab, she focuses on representations of close relationships in memory. Zayas builds upon the fundamental question: How do we mentally represent the people closest to us?

“We have these abstract representations of people who are important to us; we can bring them to mind even when they’re not physically in our presence,” she said. “They can affect how we behave.”

By using both explicit and implicit methods to measure the “positivity” or “negativity” of a response to a particular stimulus that reminded the participant of a close relation , her lab found that simply seeing a representation of someone close can help people recover from negative memories. An explicit measure involves a straightforward self-report in which participants see a picture of someone close to them, and then note their feelings on a numbered scale. An implicit measure, while more complicated, is considered to be more accurate because it omits self-reporting bias.

One implicit measure involves creating a “nonsense” word with no underlying connotations.  After seeing a picture of someone close to them, participants were asked what they believe the word meant.

“The idea is that you’ll use your own internal state to make sense of that word. It’s a nonsense word, but if you’re feeling nervous, you might interpret that word as being negative, whereas if you’re feeling calm and secure, you might interpret that word positively,” Zayas said.

Each participant also wrote a stream of consciousness after the visual stimulus. Researchers then coded the words to find out how many negative words versus positive words there were in the writing. If the participants had seen a picture of someone whom they had positive feelings for, the ratio of positive to negative words was higher.

“What we see is that when we remind people of their mother or their partner, that simple reminder will help improve their mood,” Zayas said.

But given all the positive thinking that comes from attachment, what happens with rejection?

“We’re very sensitive to any cue that these relationships could be in danger,” Zayas said. “Our alarm is ready, and one of the most damaging threats is when a person within that relationship wants to terminate that relationship, which makes good sense because if you’re attuned to the threat you can respond to the threat.”

Zayas used Event Related Potentials which measure brain responses, while participants heard a neutral statement, compared to while participants heard an emotional statement.

For example, if participants heard the statement, “If I study for a test, my partner will be …” or “If I am feeling stressed, my partner will be …” they would have to decide if a word on a computer screen was a word or a nonword. Some words were supporting — caring, accepting — while other words were rejecting — dismission, aloof. Participants were faster to identify words as words, rather than nonwords, if they were already thinking about the word. Zayas used a component of the ERP, the N400 negative wave response 400 milliseconds after a visual or auditory stimulus, to investigate these situations.

“We designed the whole task to look at N400 and to see if the deflection would be more sensitive to rejection cues,” Zayas said.

She found that the magnified neurophysiological response to filling in the more positive or the more negative word, recorded via ERPs, occurred within 250 milliseconds of the stimulus. However, this magnified response did not occur with the neutral statement. Thus, participants paid more attention to the emotional statement than the neutral one. Moreover, she found individual differences in the neurophysiological response among participants, particularly females. More emotionally invested participants had heightened responses, while more detached participants had dampened responses.

Explicit trials showed participants consistently indicating their positive feelings toward the person who was closest to them, on a scale of zero to nine, as nine. When asked whether they had negative feelings toward this person, they wrote down zero.

“It suggests that in memory, there is a lot of positivity but there is some negativity —even with the person that you value the most,” Zayas said. “Yet these relationships are so complex, and our representations are also so rich, that we don’t see the complexity with self-reported surveys. Implicitly, it’s much more complex.”

Co-authored with post doctorate student, Joshua Tabak ’09, Zayas also recently wrote a publication which discusses the effects of gaydar, one’s ability to distinguish someone’s sexual orientation by simply seeing them. The study was based on experimental trials in which participants were shown photographs of men and women for 50 milliseconds. In this time, they had to decide whether the person was gay or straight. Zayas and Tabak found that not only could people often guess sexual orientation in 50 milliseconds, but they could, unexpectedly, guess the sexual orientation of females better than males.

“It wasn’t in the realm of what I was doing,” Zayas said, “but I said just because I don’t necessarily think it’s there doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s why we do research.”Zayas collaborates with several other faculty at Cornell too. With Prof. Corinna Lockenhoff, human development, she investigates how young versus elderly populations process subtle cues of group inclusion and exclusion. She is also looking into working on inclusion and exclusion in adolescent populations in summer camps with Prof. Jane Mendel, human development.

Much of the current literature discusses situations of exclusion and inclusion that are very clear and explicit.

“For instance, they’ll say, ‘You’re spending the rest of your life alone,’ or ‘You’re playing a frisbee game and suddenly the other two players stop throwing you the frisbee.’ But often, exclusion does not take that form, it’s more subtle,” Zayas said. “What we’re interested in is how these people assess whether they are being included and excluded, and how do they respond?”

Zayas also teaches Human Developmetn 2600: Introduction to Personality in the fall.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that participants in Zayas’ research filled in words when prompted. In fact, the participants only decided if words on a computer screen were real words or non-words.

Original Author: Reem Khondakar