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NSF Grant brings new opportunities for social psychologist

7/14/16

By: Andrea Stafford, digital content/marketing coordinator

Social Psychologist Sarah Hill will begin a new research study this summer with grant funding from the National Science Foundation. The correlational study will focus on the influence of disease vulnerability on decision-making – a little-known research area. The study results could reveal implications that affect both individual quality of life and the nation’s economic growth.

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Sarah Hill

Hill’s interdisciplinary study will involve collaboration between a psychology lab at TCU and a colleague at the University of Louisiana at Monroe to integrate theories and methods from psychoneuroimmunology, social psychology and evolutionary biology. The idea behind the study stems from evolutionary biology and the theory of bet-hedging, which is a way living organisms learn to cope with changing environments.

According to Hill, the data collected from eight studies may prove the counterintuitive predication that vulnerability to disease may actually lead to risky decision-making, including risky sexual behavior. For example, humans who live in areas with high pathogen levels may be more likely to make sexual behavior decisions based on immune-based vulnerabilities, due to the genetic variability it offers. These individuals put their “eggs in many baskets” by increasing their number of sexual partners to decrease perceived vulnerability to disease in their offspring.

Gary Boehm, associate professor of psychology, studies psychoneurology, and his lab will participate in gathering data by examining decision-making through questionnaires followed by a blood-based measure to assess immune status. The results will help the research team identify any patterns in decision-making behaviors and correlation indicators by looking at the immune competence.

Many of the studies will involve correlational experiments. The research conducted at the University of Louisiana at Monroe will involve examining how the burden of disease in the environment influences decision-making, considering two crucial factors: Louisiana is the state with the highest disease burden in the United States, and ULM’s student body offers diversity, which will help the research team determine whether results generalize to a broad population.

Hill said the study results could have several implications, such as setting the stage for health-based interventions designed to reduce teen pregnancy, single parenthood prevalence and sexually transmitted infection prevalence among those most at risk. “Risky” sexual behavior is often associated with these scenarios; therefore, this new research study approach may help determine factors that promote risky decisions.

“I think this is the most expansive research project I have done. It is an expensive project, with many people involved, and I am going to be coordinating the efforts of several different research groups. I am really excited to have the opportunity to do it,” Hill said.

“It will really produce some meaningful research, most of which turns conventional wisdom on its ear.”

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