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Research notes
The Geography of Thought

Cultural differences in the way the mind works may be greater than most people suspect, according to U-M psychologist Richard Nisbett, author of "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why," just published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.

"When you have a diverse group of people from different cultures, you get not just different beliefs about the world, but different ways of perceiving it and reasoning about it, each with its own strengths and weaknesses," says Nisbett, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research.

In the book, Nisbett, who also heads the U-M Culture and Cognition Program, discusses the substantial differences in East Asian and Western thought processes, citing experimental, historical and social evidence. His findings call into question the long-standing psychological assumption that the way the human mind works is universal. He addresses such questions as: Why did the ancient Chinese excel at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry? Why do Western infants learn nouns more rapidly than verbs, when it is the other way around in East Asia? Why do East Asians find it so difficult to disentangle an object from its surroundings?


Survey of U-M freshmen may reflect changes in outlook after 9-11

A greater percentage of this year's freshmen at U-M feel that raising a family is either a "very important" or an "essential" goal, as compared with the freshman class of 2001, according to Malinda Matney, senior research associate in the Division of Student Affairs.

This finding is one of many derived from U-M's contribution to the annual survey of entering classes across the country conducted each fall by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) was founded in 1966.

"This administration of the CIRP is the first since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. This year's entering students completed the survey around the time of the first anniversary of 9-11, which may have shifted their views on many questions," Matney said. "Whether as a result of 9-11 or the economy, Michigan students are demonstrating significant shifts in their future priorities. Those U-M students who feel that raising a family is a 'very important' or 'essential'goal rose from 72.8 percent in 2001 to 74.5 percent in 2002, while those valuing being 'very well off financially' dropped from 72.7 percent in 2001 to 69.3 percent in 2002."

Other findings include a sharply increased interest in participation in the arts, an increase in community-minded goals and an increase in reliance on magazine rankings to choose a college. Information on the national survey is available at http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/heri.html.
--Joel Seguine, Office of the Vice President for Communications

Reputation valuable for eBay sellers

Paul Resnick, an associate professor in the School of Information, collaborated with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in a new study affirming the value of reputation for people and entities selling items on eBay.

It is the first known controlled study of eBay sales to quantitatively measure the monetary advantage for sellers who establish and maintain high marks on the auction Web site's online feedback system.

Buyers are willing to spend 7.6 percent more for items offered by a seller with a solidly positive eBay reputation, according to the results of a controlled experiment involving sales of vintage post cards. Richard Zeckhauser, the Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at the Kennedy School of Government, conducted the study in conjunction with Kate Lockwood, a graduate student research assistant in the School of Information; Resnick; and John Swanson, a vintage postcard seller registered on eBay.

Researcher identifies hotspots for fish conservation

 

At a time when conservation budgets are tight but species continue to be threatened with extinction, setting priorities is essential. Since the late 1980s, conservationists have turned their attention to identifying biodiversity hotspots, areas that are threatened by human activity and that also harbor a high number of endemic species (species that occur only there and nowhere else).

A symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science focused on "the hottest of the biodiversity hotspots," the world's lakes, streams and wetlands. Speaking in that symposium Feb. 18, Gerald R. Smith, a professor in the departments of Geological Sciences and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, described the methods he used to pinpoint three regions where North American freshwater fishes are at greatest risk. The regions he identified are the southern Appalachian region, the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and northern California, and the Caribbean coastal drainages of eastern and southern Mexico.

"In all three of the areas I identified, habitat destruction by water diversion, agriculture, deforestation, coal mining, mine wastes and barrier dams is causing extinction and endangerment of aquatic organisms," Smith said. "I hope this analysis will help show where conservation activities and public education about rich fish biodiversity at risk should be concentrated."

Methane and mini-horses: Fossils reveal effects of global warming

How will global warming affect life on Earth? Uncertainties about future climate change and the impact of human activity make it difficult to predict exactly what lies ahead. But the past offers clues, say scientists who are studying a period of warming that occurred about 55 million years ago.

In a joint project of U-M, the University of New Hampshire and the Smithsonian Institution, researchers have been analyzing fossils from the badlands of Wyoming found in a distinctive layer of bright red sedimentary rock that was deposited at the boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene epochsa time of apparent sudden climate change. The researchers described their findings in a paper presented Feb. 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The interval of Earth history that we're studying is marked by a short-term global warming event thought to have occurred when something triggered the release of methane from methane clathrate—a kind of 'methane ice' found in ocean sediments," said Philip Gingerich, professor of geological sciences. Within about 10,000 years of peak warming, mammals such as primates and the groups that include horses and deer appeared together for the first time in North America, apparently having crossed land bridges from other continents. As the warm spell continued, the animals showed an intriguing response: they became smaller. When the climate returned to normal, the animals became normal size again.

To understand why dwarf versions of the various animals appeared and then disappeared from the fossil record, Gingerich turned to colleagues at the U-M Biological Station who are studying the effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels—associated with global warming—on plant growth.

Under these conditions, plants grow quickly but are less nutritious than they would be normally. Animals eating such plants might adapt by becoming smaller over time, Gingerich reasoned.

Can't stand the pain? Your genes may be to blame

A tiny variation in a single gene may help explain why some people can withstand painor other physical or emotional stressbetter than others, researchers from U-M and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report.
Neuroscientist Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta (Photo courtesy UMHS Public Relations)

And while genetics may not make all the difference between wimps and Marines, the discovery adds to building evidence that variations in individuals' response to pain are due mainly to biological factors affecting the brain and how it processes environmental stressors, including its natural pain-control systems.

In the Feb. 21 issue of the journal Science, the team reported that a small variation in the gene that encodes the enzyme called catechol-O-methyl transferase, or COMT, made a significant difference in the pain tolerance, and pain-related emotions and feelings, of healthy volunteers.

U-M neuroscientist Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, of the Mental Health Research Institute and the Medical School's departments of psychiatry and radiology, was the lead author. Other authors include Mary Heitzig, Yolanda Smith, Joshua Bueller, Yanjun Xu, Robert Koeppe and Christian Stohler of U-M, and Ke Xu and David Goldman of the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism. The study was supported by funding from NIH and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Sex, hormones and genetics affect brain's pain control system

What accounts for differences in how individuals feel and respond to pain? And why are some people, especially women, more frequently prone to disorderssuch as temporomandibular joint pain and fibromyalgiathat cause them to feel crippling pain day and night?
Participants in a study about how hormones and genetics affect the brain’s pain control system were scanned as they received a pain-causing but harmless injection of salt water in their jaw muscles. (Courtesy UMHS Public Relations)

Researchers at U-M believe many answers to these questions lie in the brainspecifically, how the brain controls our responses to pain. Now, after several years of using sophisticated brain-imaging techniques that let them see chemical activity in the brain while pain is occurring, U-M researchers believe they've pieced together some clues to individual pain variations. What they've found has surprised even them, as they reported Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

The team reported that gender, sex hormones like estrogen, and genes appear to play a big part in how individuals' bodies, and emotions, react to pain. Their newest preliminary data suggest that variations in women's estrogen levelssuch as those that occur throughout the monthly menstrual cycle or during pregnancyregulate the brain's natural ability to suppress pain.

The lead researcher was neuroscientist Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, whose team included many of the researchers who were involved in the Science paper described above.

Paper discusses welfare sanctions and consequences for material hardship

Welfare recipients who have their benefits reduced for failure to comply with welfare work programs are more likely than other recipients to resort to desperate measures such as pawning or searching in trash cans to make ends meet, according to a paper by Kristin S. Seefeldt, a research investigator at the Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy within the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy; Hui-chen Wang, an economics graduate student at U-M; and Ariel Kalil, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago.

The issue of who gets sanctioned and what happens to these families is one that has received a fair amount of media attention and has been discussed in welfare policy debates. The paper, titled "Sanctions and Material Hardship under TANF" (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program), was published in Social Service Review.

The authors examined factors associated with the likelihood that a welfare recipient might be sanctioned and whether this reduction leads to hardship. More than a third of sanctioned recipients experienced hardship, compared fewer than 15 percent of those who weren't sanctioned. The authors found that welfare recipients who are younger, African American and lacking a high school degree were more likely to be sanctioned.

Atkins committee issues report on cyberinfrastructure

A National Science Foundation committee chaired by Daniel Atkins, a professor in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has recommended the organization spend an additional $1 billion a year developing the nation's "cyberinfrastructure" to support scientific research.

The Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure contends that investment in comprehensive cyberinfrastructure can change profoundly what scientists and engineers do, how they do it, and who participates. Its recommendations are detailed in the report "Revolutionizing Science and Engineering through Cyberinfrastructure."

The report emphasizes the importance of acting quickly and the risks of failing to do so. Those risks include lack of coordination, which could leave key data in irreconcilable formats; long-term failures to archive and curate data collected at great expense; and artificial barriers between disciplines built from incompatible tools and structures.

The full report is available in PDF format at http://www.communitytechnology.org/nsf_ci_report/.

Book studies education reform

The reform efforts spurred by a movement toward stronger academic standards, stiffer state tests and school accountability for student scores seem not to be succeeding in many states, according to the book "Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works" by David Cohen, John Dewey Professor of Education and a professor of public policy, and Heather Hill, a research associate in the School of Education.

In an effort to understand the reasons behind this failure, Cohen and Hill compiled 10 years worth of data on one of the most ambitious school-improvement efforts in late 20th century America: California's decade-long campaign to improve mathematics teaching in the state's public schools. Their extensive analysis of California professional education materials and a survey of nearly 600 of the state's elementary school teachers finds strong evidence that effective state reform depends on conditions that most policymakers ignore: coherent guidance for teaching and learning, and extensive opportunities for professional learning.

Cohen and Hill take the view that the key to successful reform is the thoughtful integration of policy and instruction. They say reforms can work, if teachers are given information about newly imposed requirements, as well as the time to integrate them into an effective curriculum.

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