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Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 4, 2014

Peer ReviewA proposal for research to detect racial bias in the research peer review process has earned a second-place prize from the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) for two College of Human Ecology faculty members: Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci.

NIH sponsored the national “Great Ideas” contest in response to recent findings that African-American principal investigators have a 10.4 percent lower funding rate on NIH grant proposals. The goal was to encourage the development of novel approaches to study and understand the mechanisms leading to the black funding deficit, as well as ways to address the issue.

The professors of human development outlined experiments to answer the question: Do investigator race and/or ethnicity of topic target population (considered separately as well as together) influence research evaluations? “By better understanding why and under what conditions reviewers assign lower scores to grants by African-American PIs, we can target solutions to ensure optimal impact of resources for solving the problem and eliminating inequalities in the grant-review process,” Williams and Ceci wrote.

Williams and Ceci were awarded a cash prize of $5,000 for their “Great Idea.”

Steve and WendyUntil recently, universities deserved their reputations as bastions of male privilege and outright sexism say Cornell professors Steve Ceci and Wendy Williams in their recent New York Times op-ed piece. But times have changed. Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies. They found that when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome. Read more

ciws-header-home_3By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 4, 2014

A newly published examination of reasons for female academics’ ongoing underrepresentation in math-intensive fields analyzes a very long list of purported culprits – before coming to a surprising conclusion.

Cornell’s Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, both of the Department of Human Development, are joined by economists Donna K. Ginther of the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University for a whole-issue report, “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” in the October 2014 journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Ceci and colleagues address numerous factors alleged to be responsible for the shortage of women in math-intensive fields of academic science. The 67-page article first reviews older data, then undertakes new analyses of factors alleged to be responsible for the dearth of women in these fields.

Alleged factors include biased hiring, chilly climate, productivity, hours worked, math aptitude scores, average impact ratings, job satisfaction, and promotion and tenure rates. Their conclusion may surprise some readers whose opinions are based on media headlines.

They find that, with some notable exceptions, the playing field is now level for women and men in terms of hiring into tenure-track appointments, tenure, impact, promotion, job satisfaction and remuneration.

The single biggest change, the authors believe, has been time itself: In contrast to women’s status several decades ago, today women and men fare comparably in the academic science pipeline – again, with some exceptions that the authors describe.

Observed sex differences have their roots long before application to tenure-track jobs, starting in adolescence and amplified in high school (where fewer women take advanced placement courses in calculus and physics) and in college.

The authors summarize their findings by urging readers to go beyond the rallying cries of the past and focus on current challenges facing women: “We conclude by suggesting that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.”

Consequently, the authors continue, “current barriers to women’s full participation in mathematically-intensive academic science fields are rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields.”

They recommend that “future research should focus on these barriers rather than misdirecting attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”

Related Links

The Paper
New York Times: 'Academic Science Isn’t Sexist'
Association for Psychological Science: 'Gender Fairness Prevails in Most Fields of Academic Science'
Stephen Ceci
Wendy Williams
College of Human Ecology

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 6, 2014



A hammer has many uses – breaking, prying, bending – but we all know that hammers are supposed to be for hammering nails into wood. It turns out we not only learn such cultural conventions when we’re very young, we can transmit them, too.

A recent Cornell study finds that toddlers notice subtle social clues to figure out what actions of others may be socially or culturally important and then preferentially share this information with others.

The findings show that social context influences children’s transmission of information, perhaps playing a role in the dissemination of cultural conventions from a young age, say authors Christopher Vredenburgh, graduate student in the field of human development; Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development in the College of Human Ecology; and Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development.



In their study, two-year-olds were shown two new toys that each light up and make a sound. One action was demonstrated by a person exploring the toy on their own without engaging the child, and one was demonstrated by a person using eye contact and child-directed speech, known informally as baby talk or “motherese,” cues that children pick up on as signals that you are trying to “teach” them something culturally or socially relevant.

The toddlers learned and produced both actions, but when a new person who was not part of the initial demonstration asked them what the toy does, the toddlers were more likely to show the cued action first and to spend more time showing it.

“Children are rapid causal learners and precocious imitators and can learn about cause/effect by observing others making things ‘go’ with no additional cues, but they prefer to transmit the cued action in a new social situation,” Kushnir said.

“They learn something additional about the cued effect – they learn that it may be something that is worth communicating to another person,” she explained.

“This builds on prior evidence that children think that some causal properties of objects might also be socially or culturally relevant – it may be a way children learn about culture. Furthermore, it shows that even two-year-old children actively participate in culture by transmitting selectively to the new person only the ‘relevant’ information.”

The study, “Pedagogical cues encourage toddlers’ transmission of recently demonstrated functions to unfamiliar adults,” published online in Developmental Science (Oct. 5), was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Leopold Schepp Foundation and the Cornell University Alumni Association.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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Tamar Kushnir
Marianella Casasola
The paper
The College of Human Ecology

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 14, 2014

To solve a mental puzzle, the brain’s executive control network for externally focused, goal-oriented thinking must activate, while the network for internally directed thinking like daydreaming must be turned down to avoid interference – or so we thought.

New research led by Cornell neuroscientist Nathan Spreng shows for the first time that engaging brain areas linked to so-called “off-task” mental activities (such as mind-wandering and reminiscing) can actually boost performance on some challenging mental tasks. The results advance our understanding of how externally and internally focused neural networks interact to facilitate complex thought, the authors say.

“The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind-wandering,” said Spreng, assistant professor of human development and the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite – that engaging the default network can also improve performance.”

The study is the first published research conducted in the new Cornell MRI Facility (CMRIF), Spreng said.

There are plenty of neuroimaging studies showing that default network activation interferes with complex mental tasks – but in most, Spreng explained, the mental processes associated with default network conflict with task goals. If you start thinking about what you did last weekend while taking notes during a lecture, for example, your note-taking and ability to keep up will suffer.

Spreng and his team developed a new approach in which off-task processes such as reminiscing can support rather than conflict with the aims of the experimental task. Their novel task, “famous faces n-back,” tests whether accessing long-term memory about famous people, which typically engages default network brain regions, can support short-term memory performance, which typically engages executive control regions.

While undergoing brain scanning, 36 young adults viewed sets of famous and anonymous faces in sequence and were asked to identify whether the current face matched the one presented two faces back. The team found participants were faster and more accurate when matching famous faces than when matching anonymous faces and that this better short-term memory performance was associated with greater activity in the default network. The results show that activity in the default brain regions can support performance on goal-directed tasks when task demands align with processes supported by the default network, the authors say.

“Outside the laboratory, pursuing goals involves processing information filled with personal meaning – knowledge about past experiences, motivations, future plans and social context,” Spreng said. “Our study suggests that the default network and executive control networks dynamically interact to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the pursuit of external goals and internal meaning.”

The study, “Goal-congruent default network activity facilitates cognitive control,” published in October in the Journal of Neuroscience, was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Co-authors are graduate student Elizabeth DuPre ’14, Juliana Garcia ’14, Judith Mildner ’14 and CMRIF technical director Wenming Luh from Cornell, and Dhawal Selarka, Stefan Gojkovic and Gary R. Turner from York University, Canada.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:

The paper
Nathan Spreng
College of Human Ecology

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 2, 2014

Envisioning an increasingly diverse America – the Census Bureau predicts ethnic minorities, combined, will constitute the majority of the U.S. population by 2050 – causes anxiety for a lot of white people.

Except, that is, whites with a defined “purpose in life,” a Cornell-Carleton University psychology study has found.

“People with a greater sense of purpose are not as bothered by projections of increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” says Anthony L. Burrow, assistant professor of developmental psychology in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

With graduate students Rachel Sumner and Maclen Stanley ’14 and Patrick L. Hill, a psychologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, Burrow published findings in the September 2014 online journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, titled “Purpose in Life as a Resource for Increasing Comfort with Ethnic Diversity.” The latest study builds on 2012 experiments by Burrow and Hill, showing that white passengers on Chicago Metro trains are more comfortable when outnumbered by persons of color if they have a sense of purpose.

‘We shall persevere’
Citing previous studies by other researchers, the Cornell authors define “purpose in life” as follows: • A self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors and provides a sense of meaning. • An indicator of psychological well-being, physical health and longevity. • Purpose is thought to contribute to well-being by providing a guiding framework for actualizing life goals within a larger social system. • Purposeful individuals are oriented toward connecting with the broader world around them. • Purpose includes an intent to persevere until one’s goals are brought to fruition. • A greater sense of purpose may help individuals conceptualize what it takes to thrive in the context of a more inclusive and diverse future.

The researchers recruited 205 white volunteers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey tool. Sense of purpose was gauged by asking participants whether they agreed with statements like “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” and “I am an active person in carrying out the plans I have set for myself.” And by asking online volunteers, who were paid 50 cents apiece for taking the survey, to put their thoughts in writing.

“We also tried to determine whether whites prefer to live in ethnically homogeneous cities or ethnically diverse places,” Sumner says. “Not surprisingly, most whites said they’re more comfortable living amongst other white people.”

“Except when we asked, before hand, that they write briefly about their purpose in life,” Stanley notes. “After articulating sense of purpose, many white participants in the online experiment were significantly more likely to prefer the more diverse city.”

Says Burrow: “The year 2050 might be distant for older adults, but our children are already getting a preview of an increasingly diverse America. The start of classes this month [September 2014] marks the first time in our history that white children are not the majority in U.S. elementary and secondary schools.”

With the erosion of majority status, Burrow says, “there may be a tendency for individuals to perceive diversity as threatening. For some whites, increasing diversity could mean the demise of their social influence, their values and their place in the world. Even imagining a more ethnically heterogeneous future society increases whites’ fear of and anger toward ethnic minorities.”

The authors venture that a sense of purpose “may go beyond improving attitudes toward diversity and may even influence decisions and behaviors. … A sense of purpose may alleviate motivations for self-segregation that might otherwise prevail.”

Anything that bolsters individuals’ psychological resources – anything that emphasizes a sense of value and self-persistence – “may increase comfort with ethnic diversity by diminishing perceptions of threat associated with it,” the authors believe.

Their findings, they say, “may have implications beyond that of major life choices, such as where people choose to reside, and might also influence the types of diversity-related decisions people make in everyday life, including which co-workers to befriend or simply where to sit on the subway.”

The online survey and analyses of results were supported, in part, by internal funds from the College of Human Ecology.

Related Links:

The paper
Anthony Burrow
College of Human Ecology

Students and professors in Human Development worked this past summer to move their research into the real world at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills.

Kathleen McCormick '16 and Alexandra Holmes '16 invite students to join the journaling study - Mark Vorreuter

Kathleen McCormick '16 and Alexandra Holmes '16 invite students to join the journaling study - Mark Vorreuter

Guided by  human development undergraduates Alexandra Holmes '16 and Kathleen McCormick '16, campers reflected on puberty in the "Writing about Life Changes" study led by Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development.

Following a successful pilot study last summer, Mendle is again partnering with camp director Tim Davis to study the health benefits of writing about teen transitions.

“The 4-H program has always had a wonderful connection with the university,” says Davis, interim executive director and 4-H program leader of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ontario County.

“There is a real emphasis on how the camp experience will develop the whole child, and if there is a good fit between faculty and our priority areas – healthy living, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), or workforce development – we’re very open to discussing partnerships.”

Lindsay Dower ’17 guides students in a nutrition game – Mark Vorreuter

Lindsay Dower ’17 guides students in a nutrition game – Mark Vorreuter

Indeed, 4-H Camp Bristol Hills is becoming a prime spot for Cornell professors and students to pursue research and outreach projects. Along with Mendle’s study this summer, the camp hosted the “Health and Brain Neuroscience Outreach” project by Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. Lindsay Dower '17, an undergraduate in human development, engaged campers in learning about neuroscience, genetics and nutrition through interactive games and bottom-line messages about health designed to help young people make healthy choices.

Read the full story

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 9, 2014

Teaching adolescents to think more simply and categorically about risks helps them make healthier choices, finds a recently published, randomized experiment by Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna. Her research shows that adolescents can be taught to think in these more protective, adult-like ways even though their brains are still developing, she says.

“We found that emphasizing bottom-line meaning was more effective than the standard approach for reducing risky sexual behaviors because such gist messages are preserved over longer periods and are key memories used in decision-making,” said Reyna, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, reporting results from her extensive study testing interventions to reduce sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy among adolescents.

“The goals of most risk reduction interventions are to enhance risk perceptions in order to overcome adolescents’ belief that they are invulnerable and to turn intuitive adolescent decision-makers into analytical, unbiased adults – but ironically, these aims are misguided,” Reyna said.

“Most adults reason more categorically than adolescents and base their decisions on the gist of information; they barely consider engaging in many high-risk behaviors because they intuitively grasp the risks and call up their experience and values more quickly,” she explained.

“Adolescents, on the other hand, take more time to weigh the benefits and risks, and often decide in favor of the benefits.”

Reyna and coauthor Britain Mills, Ph.D. ’09, developed a new risk-reduction program by incorporating her research on how adolescents reason into the proven sex education curriculum, Reducing the Risk (RTR). The main difference between the two curricula is that Reyna’s adaptation emphasizes framing typical sexual decisions in categorical ways that should promote risk avoidance (i.e. “even low risks add up to 100 percent if you keep on doing it”). Both curricula communicate the same facts about risk, but their gist-enhanced program, RTR+, promotes gist extraction, automatic retrieval of relevant personal values and automatic application of those values, Reyna and Mills say.

The effectiveness of the new curriculum was compared to the original and to an unrelated curriculum in a random, controlled trial design involving more than 700 youth in Arizona, Texas and New York. Participants took part in 14 hours of classroom instruction and activities, with follow-up surveys at completion and every 3 months up to a year after the intervention.

Reyna and Mills found that RTR+ produced improvements for 17 outcomes, whereas RTR produced improvement for 12. Effects of RTR+ were greater than RTR for nine outcomes and remained significantly greater than controls at one-year follow-up for 12 outcomes. Only RTR+ had a significant impact on measures of sexual behavior. Participants in the RTR+ group delayed initiation of sexual activity longer, had a lower increase in number of sexual partners, fewer unprotected sexual acts, less favorable attitudes toward sex and greater perception of risks of sex compared to the other two groups.

Their results suggest that by emphasizing gist representations, which are preserved over longer periods and are key memories used in decision-making, the enhanced intervention produced larger and more sustained effects on adolescent sexual risk taking, the authors say.

The study, “Theoretically motivated interventions for reducing sexual risk taking in adolescence: A randomized controlled experiment applying Fuzzy-Trace-Theory,” funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4).

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:

Valerie Reyna
The paper
College of Human Ecology

CCE_20120711_Henry Riciutti established the Infant Care and Resource Center in 1971For more than 50 years as a faculty member in Human Development, Henry N. Ricciuti was a leader in his field, a powerful advocate for families and youth, a nurturing teacher, and a mentor to fellow professors. Henry's accomplishments were numerous, leading the Society for Research in Child Develpment to honor him in 2001 with its lifetime award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Policy for Children. His approach to research questions was inherently ecological, long before that adjective came into broad use among developmental psychologists. Read the full story

By Sherrie Negrea
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, September 23, 2014

span> Human development professor Robert Sternberg speaks at a Sept. 18 panel honoring Urie Bronfenbrenner, whom he said stands out among developmental psychologists from his era as “the one person whose views are still accepted.” - Lindsay France/University Photography

Human development professor Robert Sternberg speaks at a Sept. 18 panel honoring Urie Bronfenbrenner, whom he said stands out among developmental psychologists from his era as “the one person whose views are still accepted.” - Lindsay France/University Photography

As one of the world’s leading developmental psychology scholars, Urie Bronfenbrenner, a co-founder of the national Head Start Program, was often tapped by national leaders to inform public policy on children and families.

But when those requests conflicted with his work with students, it was clear who came first to Bronfenbrenner, a professor in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology for more than 50 years who died in 2005.

At a symposium on his legacy held Sept. 18, Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology, recalled visiting Bronfenbrenner’s office one day when his assistant knocked on the door to say that Vice President Walter Mondale was on the phone.

“He said, ‘Would you ask Fritz to call me back later? I’m with my students,’” Ceci said. “Urie prioritized students over everyone. There was never anyone more impressive or more interesting or engaging to Urie than students.”

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory redefined the social sciences by proposing that human development is influenced by a framework that encompasses not only psychology, but also includes cultural, social, economic and political structures. The interaction of these systems, which are shaped into policies and programs, could either thwart or nurture optimal development.

His research legacy was to encourage developmental psychologists to consider the importance of the individual’s environment when studying behavior. Robert Sternberg, professor of human development, noted that Bronfenbrenner is unique in the field because, of all other developmental psychologists, he is “the one person whose views are still accepted.”

Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1993

Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1993 - File photo

Sternberg said Bronfenbrenner’s work influenced his own research in environmental factors that shape human intelligence. When developing college admissions tests, for example, Sternberg said that measuring practical and creative skills in addition to analytical skills can double predictions of academic performance and reduce ethnic and socio-economic group differences by more than half.

Another key impact of Bronfenbrenner’s work was its influence on public policy. Elaine Wethington, professor of human development and of sociology, recalled her work with a group of faculty on Bronfenbrenner’s book, “The State of Americans: This Generation and the Next” (1996). Covering crime, the economy, changing family structures, poverty and education, the book presented lawmakers with findings to address core problems plaguing American society.

“Urie was way ahead of his time,” Wethington said. “He wrote that behavioral scientists need policymakers more than policymakers need behavioral scientists.”

While his colleagues believed that he had a “natural ability to communicate with policymakers, Bronfenbrenner said, ‘It wasn’t natural, I worked at it,’” noted Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development.

Bronfenbrenner, who received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1938 with a dual major in psychology and music, was a gifted teacher who would meticulously prepare lecture notes, even if he had taught the class 20 times. “What he would try to do as part of class is to engage students in problem solving,” said Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, who was a student of Bronfenbrenner’s.

Over his five decades teaching at Cornell, Bronfenbrenner influenced generations of students across campus. One of those students was former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’60, said John Eckenrode, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

“When Janet Reno was on campus a few years ago as a visiting professor,” Eckenrode recalled, “she said, ‘People have often asked me throughout my career how it is that I’m as concerned and knowledgeable as I am on children and families, being a chemistry major at Cornell and a lawyer. And I always tell them it’s because I took Human Development Studies 115 with Professor Urie Bronfenbrenner.’”

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer.

Related Links:

College of Human Ecology
Urie Bronfenbrenner
Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research