College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

Taking the Plunge

Would you be more motivated by a challenge to complete a task as quickly as possible, by trying to keep yourself safe, or by concentrating on how your actions are helping to save lives? Welcome to Courage Research, a Creative Inquiry project led by psychology professor Dr. Cynthia Pury.

Participants in the experiment believe that they are contributing to life-saving research by testing the dexterity of gloves for rescue divers. Senior psychology student Lauren Brotherton measures the amount of time it takes for the subjects to assemble magnets when their hands are submerged in buckets of room temperature water versus their assembly time with ice water. At two to four degrees Celsius, the ice water is cold enough to cause the participant pain.

However, Brotherton and her team are actually measuring the amount of time the participants are willing to endure physical discomfort for a worthy cause, not how long it takes them to complete the tasks.

“What we test is noble courage and people’s willingness to participate in an uncomfortable task if they think that it’s for a noble cause,” Brotherton said. “Sometimes they’ll quit; I’ve had people say before, in the ice water bath that they wanted to stop but they wouldn’t because they’re, ‘Well if it helps save lives, I’ll try to keep doing it.’”

“We are working to develop, test and refine a theory of courage that will allow us to help people become more courageous when they need to be,” Pury said. Her overarching goal is to find a measure of courage. “It’s when someone is voluntarily taking a risk to pursue a noble goal,” Pury said, explaining the definition of courage that her team uses.

For an act to be considered courageous there must be a worthy goal that one is attempting to achieve, and there must be a significant amount of risk involved in the endeavor. In Brotherton’s study, the story about life saving research for rescue divers creates a worthy goal, and the discomfort caused by the ice water is a risk. Pury, Brotherton and their team members hope to find that the subjects who are motivated by the life saving aspects of the study are willing to keep their hands in the ice water longer.

Pury became interested in courage when she was preparing a seminar on fear and horror and found that little research existed on courage. She now leads several projects in which students like Brotherton are intensely involved in a specific study on courage, the results of which will contribute to Pury’s work in the positive psychology field. For example, undergraduate psychology student Shar’Dane Davis is studying courage in sports.

Other studies include survey-based research on defining the process of taking courageous action, understanding how emotions affect perception of courage and understanding cases of “bad,” or socially frowned upon, courage. The students write questionnaires and code the responses into usable data.

Like many Creative Inquiry professors, Pury gives her students autonomy over their projects. Brotherton and two other undergraduate students run the rescue diver study on their own, which takes about an hour per participant.

“If you go to graduate school in psychology, you pretty much have to do some kind of research, so it’s good to have that experience going into grad school,” Brotherton said. When she had an idea to add an extra condition to test in the experiment, Pury encouraged her to include it.

“I’m really hoping they get the sense of excitement that I got when I was an undergraduate and started getting involved in research that might end up in textbooks and might influence the field as a whole,” Pury said of her Creative Inquiry students. “This is really students’ opportunity to work on projects that really matter.” She recommends that students get involved early in a Creative Inquiry; because scientific studies can take years to conduct, students get more out of their experience when they work on a project for multiple semesters.

“It’s kind of cool to be in a research area that I’m passionate about too, and that it know will help me, moving forward,” Brotherton said. She finds that being part of the latest research on courage is exciting. “It’s cool to see where it’s going, what new knowledge is going to be coming out and things that are going be published.”

Culinary Tourism: Food for Thought

Flashback to childhood and explore the events that made your hometown unique, whether they were festivals or fairs, visiting attractions or frequent showcases. For many, these fond memories include recollections of the distinctive cuisine such events were known for.

Over the past three semesters, Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM) students on the Culinary Tourism Creative Inquiry team have traveled to and studied local food festivals around South Carolina while, of course, experiencing the unique fare each has to offer. The team is led by graduate student Jen Calabria, Dr. William Norman, and Dr. Teresa Tucker in PRTM.

From the Low Country Cajun Festival of James Island and the World Grits Festival of St. George, to the Rice Festival of Walterboro and the BBQ and Shag Festival of Hemingway, each South Carolina food festival provides students with hands-on experience in the interviewing and research styles used in the parks, recreation and tourism fields.

“We’re doing something that I think, out in the real world, a consultant would be paid to do. Because we have three semesters to do this, we’re producing a really high quality product, and the students are getting to see how much work it takes and what the expectations are, not just for school, but if they wanted to go into tourism research,” Calabria said.

Senior Jessica Kicklighter, a member of Culinary Tourism for two years, commented on her exposure to tourism research and the impact the creative inquiry has had on her professional skills.

“We developed our own research question and were in charge of developing a way to collect data,” she said. “We contacted festival coordinators, volunteers and prominent members of the community where the festivals were being held. We had to represent Clemson well and represent our Creative Inquiry well. We set up interviews and gathered information from these individuals over the phone and via email. My formal communication skills and interview skills have definitely improved as a result of my Creative Inquiry experience.”

At each local festival, students explored the perceptions of the residents in the area through in-depth interviews.

“It was interesting to watch the students evolve through the interviewing process at each festival, going from being fairly timid at the beginning, to having much more confidence at the end,” Calabria said. “I really enjoyed watching them become engaged with the people they were talking to and what they were doing.”

When it came to the locals at each festival, students were interested to find out their perceptions of food festivals and to explore what made the festivals ‘local.’ Surprisingly, students found that the main attraction of each festival was not the tasty treats.

“The localness of these festivals comes with the fact that the residents who attend them have been doing it for 25 years. They go to see their friends, and their families come back to these festivals because it’s a habit; they’ve always done so,” Calabria said. “As an outsider, you may not be part of the localness, nor might you be able to identify it unless you were like us and you were asking questions. The social component is what’s local.”

Taking on an outsider’s perspective has allowed students to stand in the shoes of a tourism manager, to experience the type of research that goes into developing and improving events.

With the research compiled from each festival, students created reports that were sent to the festivals to suggest areas of improvement. Aside from enjoying amusement rides, funnel cakes, crafts and festival cuisine, students in Culinary Tourism craft a real world product that explores the unique aspects that define the festivals that make hometowns unique.

“They’ve had to interact with people who are running festivals. They’ve had to come up with a plan to get something done, and then execute that plan. They’ve had to step out of their comfort zone to ask people if they would allow them to be interviewed, and then deal with that interview, whichever path it should go down,” Calabria said. “It’s a lot of real world experience.”

Pedaling Towards a Healthier Lifestyle

The seat is not very comfortable, but it feels sturdy. It’s strange, at first, to be astride what looks like an exercise bike and not break a sweat. For Dr. June Pilcher, professor of psychology, and her Creative Inquiry team however, using the low intensity FitDesk bike has become a frequent habit. “The real effect is in the long term and in general fitness and how that impacts your ability to learn and work and think,” psychology junior Phil Smith said.

“It’s a stationary bike with a desktop. They’re affordable. They’re amazingly sturdy,” Pilcher said. A FitDesk allows its user to be active while working. However, its purpose is not to burn calories. Rather, the team believes that using the FitDesk increases focus and attention. “I think that the movement, not only does it make me feel more positive when I’m doing something that I know I need to do. It makes me more attentive while I’m doing it, it makes me more focused while I’m doing it,” Pilcher said, who hops on her FitDesk several times a day to read short scientific articles or emails.

According to Pilcher, this effect occurs because the body is partially in motion. Walking-like movement from the legs signals the brain to be alert. Normally, the brain would need to scan the horizon and avoid obstacles. Since the upper body is still, the brain is more relaxed. This combination prompts the brain to a level of alertness ideal for focusing on a task like reading a book.

Pilcher believes that the human body is meant to be in frequent, low-level motion. For example, ancient hunters and gatherers walked all day in search of food. While the modern concept of exercise, ninety minutes of intense calorie burning at the gym, is healthy, it does not give us the full benefits of frequent, low-level motion.
The eleven undergraduate psychology students in the Creative Inquiry began the project in the fall of 2013. First, they became familiar with previous research on the positive effects of exercise and assembled the fifteen FitDesks that are now on campus for anyone to use.“We’ve thought about looking at the correlation between GPA and how often someone uses the bikes,” Smith said.

“I’m always looking for a more efficient way to study,” Smith said. To him, the most interesting benefit of the FitDesk is how it may increase the speed and retention rate of reading study materials.

“It’s doing your own work but realizing that your own work is not the only thing that is going on, and that you can’t even do all of your own work by yourself. You have to bring in the rest of the team… It’s a really good way to realize that you do have peers, almost colleagues, transitioning into that,” Smith said.

“Try it out and see what you think,” Pilcher invited.

“Start to tell your friends, if you like it especially, bring your friends… People just need to try it, to just try it for a little bit. You try it for a little bit, and I think you’ll see benefits.”

From the films to the streets: Gangsters in America

Don Corleone of “The Godfather” said it best: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Dr. Margaret “Margie” Britz, in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, made Clemson students an offer they could not refuse—exploring the factual history of gangsterism during the 20th century.

With all of the historically inaccurate portrayals of gangsters, it takes a trained eye to set the facts straight. Britz, a professor of criminal justice, and her team of 40 students are studying gangsterism as a film genre, in order to better understand the behavior of criminals. The project began as a way to facilitate knowledge about the criminal justice system because Clemson does not offer a criminal justice major or minor.

From Italian to Irish to Russian gangsters, Britz and her students cover them all. Over the course of a semester, they evaluate eight to 10 films, covering themes such as good versus evil and dynamic roles in society. She finds these themes interesting because everything is connected when examining the structure of an organized crime. According to Britz, “We look at these notions of good versus evil and how they’re not necessarily attached, or they’re not necessarily universal nature. [The notions of good and evil] are largely attached to roles in society.” The Creative Inquiry students compare and analyze overarching themes and morals in the films. “I think it really leaves them to critically analyze how we develop what constitutes a good behavior as opposed to a bad behavior,” Britz said.

Students watched well-known mobster movies that portray organized crime such as “The Departed” and “We Own the Night.” After every film, the group analyzed what they watched by focusing on character development and how accurately the film portrays organized crimes. Cameron Foster, a senior sociology major, believes that each time period influences the gangster as well as how the producers portray them in the films, “Seeing the progression of society and the representation of the mob bosses as either a hero or villain is something special,” Foster said.
The films also prepare students for a visit to prominent ‘gangster’ sites. For seven years, Britz and her students have traveled to New York City during the summer in order to further their knowledge on the subject. The trips allow students to see some of the locations that they studied, meet experts on the subject of organized crime and gain insight into the immigrant experience. “[The trip is] a capstone experience where some students are able to see some of the sites that we talk about in the books or in the films and that we actually talk about in real life organized crime,” Britz said.

Students visited New York City landmarks including Ellis Island, Harlem and Brooklyn. “[Traveling to New York] gives young people the opportunity to appreciate the immigrant experience because so much of what we watch deals with the immigrant groups in the U.S. and how although the mass majority of them were engaged in of them law abiding behavior,” Britz said. During the 2012 summer trip, students compared counterfeited merchandise from Chinatown, met with FBI agents and the NYPD and visited the 82nd floor of the One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, while it was still under construction. The unlimited access to famous, secure New York sites is made possible by the astounding connections Brtiz and her Creative Inquiry team have established over years of operating the project.

“Organized crime has always been my specialty and my passion. I want to give students the opportunity to network with people they typically wouldn’t have access to, so it can help them develop contacts who can help them in the future,” Britz said.

From the films to the big city, one thing is for certain—seeing is truly believing. “You can take the class; you can learn about things like you can hear about what people do when they first came over and how culture has…but you don’t really learn about it until you see it first hand,” Michael Savino, a senior sociology major, said. “It teaches you a lot about these cultures.” Learning about these cultures is important because there are limits and boundaries for gangsters within each organized crime subculture. “If they abide by those rules in that subculture, we actually consider them to be a good person,” Britz said. “Society as a whole, when they step back and look at that, they can also appreciate that this is an individual who is caught in this part of society where you have a larger part of society who would consider this as evil, but you also have a smaller part where that reinforces their behavior is actually good.”

So the next time you watch a movie about gangsters, leave the gun and look past the stereotypes and myths because there is more than what meets the eye.

The Pulse of Perception: The relationship between blood pressure and emotional recognition

Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. The heart of a participant beats as Dr. Jim McCubbin’s students listen through a stethoscope for the faint whoosh that indicates systolic blood pressure, with an eye on the blood pressure gauge and a cuff on the subject’s arm. The undergraduates on this Creative Inquiry team are manually assessing blood pressure to study the effects of cardiovascular activity on emotional perception.

Dr. McCubbin, a professor in Clemson’s Department of Psychology, has been studying for years how the cardiovascular system relates to a person’s response to stressful or emotional stimuli. He and his colleagues have found that blood pressure is not only involved in physical health, but may also be related to a phenomenon known as “emotional dampening.” The higher your resting blood pressure, the more difficulty you may have identifying others’ emotions – from the angry squint of a coworker to the joyful smile of a loved one. His most recent publication in Psychosomatic Medicine has gone viral with the news media, and was even used as a joke in Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”

Recently, Dr. McCubbin’s team of eight undergraduates has extended emotional dampening research to the realm of risk perception. The rationale is this: if you cannot detect the degree of others’ emotions, you also might not detect your own degree of risk in a given situation. For example, you might be more likely to take chances, blowing your entire paycheck betting at the racetrack or spending the weekend binge drinking. So far, the students have found that blood pressure is indeed significantly related to perceived benefits of taking risks. In another study, the team is investigating whether or not emotional dampening extends to self-expression in individuals with elevated blood pressure. Participants are asked to write about an emotional topic, and their personal stories will be analyzed with linguistic software to detect any emotional differences in expression.

The Creative Inquiry team is now starting to take a clinical approach to this phenomenon, extending their work to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Even though autistic children do not necessarily have high blood pressure, they generally have a problem recognizing emotions in faces, a major impediment to their social development. The team is in the process of developing a game to help improve emotional recognition. Eventually, the team hopes to test it with autistic students at a school in South Carolina for children with social and developmental disabilities.

The team members are truly excited about the groundbreaking research. In the past, previous students have presented research all across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to San Antonio, Texas. One recent study has been submitted for presentation at the Society for Behavioral Medicine’s 2012 annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Students from the team travelled there in April to present the research, alongside graduate students and medical professionals. According to Jack Graham, a junior psychology major on the team, “the future is only brighter as we continue exploring emotional dampening and piloting new projects concerning [therapies] for those with deficits in emotional recognition.”

Analyzing data and developing projects may be a challenge, but the students have avidly taken it on – without any rise in their blood pressure!