Shippensburg University
Psychology Department

Psi High Newsletter

October, 2004
Volume 29, No. 1


What do young adults think about their bodies?

Researchers find differences and similarities between men and women

Most body image research has focused on women and body fat. To broaden what we know, 53 women and 22 men at Shippensburg University participated in a study conducted by graduate student Christopher Zack and psychology professor Jeff Bartel. (Their presentation of “Male and Female Body Image Beliefs About the Same and Opposite Sex” took place at the 2004 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Washington, DC.) Among the 75 participants, women expressed significantly greater agreement with the statement “body image concerns are a female problem,” suggesting that women may believe such concerns are unique to them. Both men and women thought “women feel more pressure than men to meet a certain ideal body type,” again consistent with the idea that body image issues are more important for women. When shown 9 drawings of bodies with increasing fat content and asked to indicated their own place in the lineup as well as where they would like to be, the average for men showed almost no difference in the two ratings, whereas the average self-assessment for women was more than one drawing away from where they wanted to be. That is the point at which past research had essentially stopped – concluding that women are more dissatisfied with their bodies.
In addition to using the “fat dimension” drawings, though, Zack and Bartel also asked participants to rate their current and ideal bodies using 9 drawings of figures with increasing muscularity. The average ratings demonstrated that men were slightly more than one drawing below where they wanted to be, whereas women were only about one-third of a drawing below where they wanted to be. So the researchers found that both men and women tend to be dissatisfied with their bodies, with women focusing more on fat and men concentrating more on muscularity.
Since exercise is one way of influencing body fat and muscularity, the investigators also examined the role of that factor. Among both men and women, participants reporting higher levels of exercise tended to feel better about their bodies. The men, though, reported exercising significantly more than the women. In addition, the men expressed significantly higher satisfaction with their bodies than the women did with theirs. So although the men wanted to be more muscular, they reported more positive views of their own bodies than did the women, who wanted to be thinner. For both sexes, large discrepancies between actual and preferred body fat were associated with low self-esteem when it came to viewing one’s body.
The findings suggest that while both women and men may see room for improvement in their bodies, men tend to focus more on muscularity whereas women concentrate more on fat. For both men and women, exercise is apparently one way of enhancing body-related self-esteem (that also may actually change one’s body), and being extremely dissatisfied with one’s weight has a strong negative impact on how we view our bodies.


How can we bounce back from adversity?

Positive emotions and thoughts may work

Anger, fear, and other negative emotions tend to be associated with narrowing our focus to specific responses, such as attack or escape. As our bodies become activated for those potential actions, our cognitive attention narrows to thoughts that support those responses. In contrast, joy, curiosity, and other positive emotions are associated with broadening our focus to many possibilities. That flexible attitude supports resilient responses to stress, like seeing setbacks as opportunities to expand problem-solving abilities.
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions proposed by Barbara Fredrickson (University of Michigan) suggests the propositions in the preceding paragraph. To test some of those ideas, she teamed with Michele Tugade (Boston College) to conduct a series of experiments (Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004). One experiment involved 192 University of Michigan undergraduates who completed the Ego-Resiliency Scale, reported on their emotions and moods, wrote an essay about their most pressing personal problem, then answered questions regarding their emotions and thoughts during the essay-writing task. The thinking-related questions sought to examine their tendency to find positive meaning with items such as, “To what extent do you feel that you might find benefit in this situation in the long-term?” and “How likely is it that there is something to learn from the experience?” Participants high in trait resiliency were not significantly different from those low in trait resiliency in terms of their frustration with the essay-writing task, but those higher in resilience reported having significant increases in positive emotions (eagerness, excitement, happiness, and interest) during the task. Trait resilience also was significantly correlated with positive-meaning finding, which was significantly correlated with positive emotionality. But trait resilience was not significantly correlated with positive meaning finding when controlling for positive emotionality, suggesting that positive emotions might predispose one to find positive meanings in a stressful situation.
The researchers also conducted two experiments that included measures of cardiovascular arousal. In the first of those studies, 57 University of Michigan undergraduates answered the questions regarding their resilience, emotions, and moods. Eventually they were told that they would have 1 minute to prepare a 3-minute speech on “Why you are a good friend.” (They never actually gave the speech.) Then they reported on their emotions associated with the speech-preparation task, on how threatened they were by the task (“How threatening do you think it will be to complete the speech task?”), and on how challenged they were by the task (“How psyched-up are you to complete the upcoming speech task?”). The results were consistent with the essay-writing study. Participants high in trait resiliency were not significantly different from those low in trait resiliency in terms of their anxiety associated with the task, but those higher in resilience reported having significantly more positive emotions (happiness and interest) during the task. They also perceived less threat in the task, but they did not differ from low-resilient participants in terms of perceived challenge. Compared to baseline measurements, cardiovascular arousal of the participants was significantly higher during the speech-preparation task, with no significant difference between those who were high and low in resilience. Trait resilience was significantly negatively correlated with the amount of time it took participants to return to their baseline levels of cardiovascular arousal. In other words, those with high resiliency tended to take less time to settle down.
A second speech-preparation study repeated the procedures from the first one and added a new variable – threat appraisal vs. challenge appraisal. Participants in the threat appraisal condition were told that professors would evaluate their speeches in order to predict the participants’ academic and social success in college. Those in the challenge appraisal condition were asked to view the task as a challenge to overcome and were instructed to get “psyched-up” for it. The new variable had the desired effect, since participants in the threat condition reported significantly more threat than those in the challenge condition, and those in the challenge condition reported significantly more challenge than those in the threat condition. Regardless of which condition the participant was in, trait resilience was significantly positively correlated with being challenged and was significantly negatively correlated with being threatened. Participants reported increased anxiety and frustration, with no significant difference between those high and low in resilience. Compared with participants in the threat condition, those in the challenge condition rated themselves as significantly more interested and psyched-up. In the threat condition, higher resilience was significantly correlated with quicker returns to cardiovascular baselines, but in the challenge condition there was no significant relationship with trait resilience. In other words, when instructed to see themselves as successfully coping with a challenge, even those low in resiliency had the ability to quickly return to their baseline levels of cardiovascular arousal.
The three experiments support the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. In addition, the final study suggests that resiliency can be enhanced by seeing stressors as challenges to overcome rather than as threats to our wellbeing.


What is the newest smoking-cessation aid?

Scientists develop a novel approach
by Casey Murray*
*Shippensburg University Undergraduate Psychology Major

There may soon be another alternative on the market to help curb the addictive properties of nicotine. Instead of reaching for “the patch” or chewing “the gum,” consumers who wish to stop smoking may soon opt for “the shot.” The March 26, 2004 issue of Drug Week reported on clinical trials of NicVAX, a vaccine for nicotine. Like other vaccines, a small dose of a foreign substance is injected into the body, resulting in antibodies being formed which work to remove that substance, as well as chemically similar substances within the bloodstream. NicVAX imitates the structure nicotine, so that antibodies are generated to the natural form of nicotine.
In theory, the antibodies will begin to treat nicotine as an enemy invader and will absorb the addictive chemical. Animal testing has shown that the nicotine-antibody complexes are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier, thus limiting the capacity of nicotine to reach the brain and have its desired effect. A human nicotine addict on NicVAX would have no way of gratifying the craving or lessening the effects of withdrawal, so NicVAX would work as a kind of enforced cold-turkey approach.
Side-effects to NicVAX were usually mild, brief, and required no medical treatment. The most common complaints associated with NicVAX were tenderness, aching, and redness at the injection site. Clinical trials with human smokers are continuing, and additional results are expected later this fall.


Editor: Kenneth France, Ph.D.

The Psi High Newsletter is published for teachers of high school psychology by Shippensburg University.

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