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ALLENTOWN, PA (May 7, 2009)-Does looking good help criminals beat the rap? Do the media give Muslims a bad name? Does Rover improve the quality of Life? These were just a few of the issues senior student researchers in Cedar Crest College's Psychology Department addressed recently as part of their final research presentations.

In "Effects of Attractiveness on Guilty Verdicts and Sentencing for Misdemeanor and Felony Offenses," Cara Goss studied 125 female college students to see what impact someone's looks might have on the assumption of their guilt or innocence by jurors. More than half the respondents knew someone who had been arrested, and nearly one-third had been the victim of a crime.

Participants were presented with one of two vignettes: a felony case in which a man was accused of raping a college student, and a misdemeanor case in which drug paraphernalia was found inside a car during a routine traffic stop. In the first instance, there were no eyewitnesses and crime scene evidence was scant; in the second instance, the driver claimed his brother had borrowed his car and that the paraphernalia belonged to him.

After the respondents read their vignette they were shown one of two photos of the "suspect," one of whom was to represent an attractive person, the other of whom was deemed unattractive. Participants were then asked to assess the guilt of the suspect, and their reason for coming to their conclusion. They were also asked to sentence the suspects based on Pennsylvania crime laws. Goss hypothesized that those who were better looking would be judged not guilty more often, and receive more lenient sentences when they were deemed guilty.

The results proved the hypotheses correct. Attractive "suspects" were found guilty about half as often as their non-attractive counterparts, and they received less serious punishment when they were deemed guilty.

"My research findings will hopefully provide some insight into our decisions and possible biases which influence our day-to-day interactions with and perceptions of others," said Goss, of Elizabethtown, PA. "I greatly appreciate the opportunity to do research at the undergraduate level. Working with Dr. Kerrie Baker and Dr. Jane Tyler Ward was amazing, and what I've learned in the past year has helped prepare me for a future in psychology."

Media and Portrayal of Muslims Post 9/11

Melanie Lantz' research project, "Priming and Framing: Media Influences on Stereotyping of Muslims," took a close look at the degree to which media outlets-by design or not-create or reinforce conceptions of Muslims as "evil terrorists" through priming and framing.

Priming has been defined as the use of a situational context to stimulate a particular reaction based on our knowledge base/stereotypes. In one study, for example, participants walked more slowly after being primed with an elderly stereotype. To frame is to take a stereotype and enhance the perception that it is correct by making it more noticeable or meaningful for the audience. Blaring headlines and highly emotional language typically make a greater impact than "just the facts."

Lantz' research builds upon prior research in the field indicating that people can experience psychological ramifications from media coverage of terrorism, regardless of whether they or someone they know has been personally affected by the attack. For the study, she showed video clips-which research has shown tends to be more psychologically powerful than print media-from YouTube and other outlets to 105 local college students. Some participants viewed priming clips with neutral clips or framing clips with neutral clips, while some viewed only neutral clips.

Lantz hypothesized that when it comes to one's willingness to discriminate against Muslims or restrict their civil liberties, and feel negative emotions toward the religious group, clips that included framing would have the greatest impact, followed by clips with instances of priming and, lastly, the neutral-only clips.

What she found was that the study results were not significant in the areas of discrimination and restricting civil liberties, but that framing and priming clips greatly impacted the emotions of participants as measured through their mood characteristics. Those who watched primed and framed clips scored significantly higher in negative mood characteristics than those who viewed only neutral clips.
Lantz, of Allentown, PA, has been accepted directly into the Ph.D. program at University of Albany, where she will study this fall.

Feeling Fine, Thanks to Fido and Friends

As part of her presentation, titled "The Effects of Animals on Human Psychological and Physiological Well-Being," Jamie Bower showed two-minute slideshows to 105 female college students in an attempt to ascertain just how much pets can help improve one's mood. One of the slideshows featured pictures of all types of pets-from dogs and cats, to hamsters, to turtles and other amphibians-while the other slideshow was of various items, such as a cardboard box and a pair of men's loafers.

To measure the impact of pets on emotional and physical wellness, Bower set up before and after questionnaires designed to measure emotional wellness of study participants, and also took their blood pressure before and after to see if viewing the pictures had an obvious physiological impact.

Bower, of New Tripoli, PA, hypothesized that those who viewed the animal photos would benefit in the mind and body through a brighter outlook and greater relaxation. She also hypothesized that those who owned pets would already possess greater optimism and overall physiological wellness than others surveyed.

The main hypotheses were largely supported by the research. Those who viewed the pet slideshow reported that they were happier after the slideshow than they were before viewing it. Likewise, participants who viewed the pet slides saw a decrease in their blood pressure, while those who saw the neutral slides did not. Other findings were not as clearcut.

"I don't think most pet owners realize how beneficial the bond with their pet is-psychologically and physiologically. It is truly important to recognize how helpful it may be to utilize animals more often for healing of both mental and physical illnesses," said Bower, who plans on attending graduate school at University of Pennsylvania or Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Having the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate student was such a wonderful experience, one that I will never forget. It will be of great benefit as I pursue my master's degree in counseling psychology."

Other psychology students completing projects included: Julia Anne Lake, "The Effect on Music and Mood While Exercising;" Breanna Afflerbach of Barto, PA, "The Effects of Social Support, Lifestyle Choices and Locus of Control on College Student Stress;" Kristen Potuznik of Lakeville, MN, "Differences in Stereotypes and Knowledge of Mental Illness;" Larissa Barbaro of Sugarloaf, NY, "Factors Affecting Victim Accountability in Sexual Assaults;" Danielle Schmidgall of Levittown, PA, "Factors Affecting Satisfaction in a Decision-Making Task;" Annette Green of Palmerton, PA, "The Effects of Body Satisfaction and Body Image on College Females' Self-Esteem and Relationship Satisfaction;" and Ashley McGee of Smyrna, DE, "Attributions of Guilt: Implications of Juror Heuristics and Bias Based on Race, Gender and the Appearance of Tattoos."

Kerrie Baker, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of the research program this year, said of the program and the work of her students: "Unlike many larger colleges, our students are fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct their own research projects at the undergraduate level. It's wonderful to see students take courses in their sophomore year, and then apply that learning a year or two later to a research question that they want to answer. This research project takes their learning to the next level, and gives our students an edge; that is, they have advanced knowledge, critical thinking, and other skills essential for the working world or graduate school."



Last Updated: 5/7/09