Publishing in an academic journal is a significant accomplishment, but a student receiving a byline in a prestigious magazine is even more impressive. Psychology doctoral student Bradley Reynolds achieved a first-author publication in Neuropsychology, an American Psychological Association journal. This competitive publication ranks in the top 30 percent for impact among all clinical psychology journals.
In his first year of the doctoral program, Reynolds and students in the lab of McFarlin Professor of Psychology Michael Basso, proposed an idea for investigating maladaptive decision-making. The real-world consequence of poor decisions is risks. From there, it was a matter of setting up sessions to evaluate TU students. Reynolds shares his experience.
What was your research on?
We were interested in exploring risk-taking among a healthy adult population. We focused on several risk domains: sexual misconduct, drug use and antisocial behaviors like theft, aggression and harm to others. The extant research has determined that cognitive and personality factors predict who is most likely to engage in these risky acts. However, no research has simultaneously evaluated the relative impact of both cognitive and personality factors on risk taking. To study cognitive function, we focused upon executive functions like our ability to adapt to new situations, form plans, develop strategies, decision-making and mental flexibility. These constructs appear to be linked to risk-taking behavior. To evaluate personality, we administered a questionnaire that measures impulsivity and sensation seeking. These are stable characteristics, and reflect a person’s tendency to behave without contemplation and to seek excitement.
This project was innovative, because past studies have focused on either cognitive factors or personality variables, rather than comparing the two simultaneously. Furthermore, most investigations have selectively studied clinical populations (e.g., individuals with known medical illnesses, psychiatric conditions) rather than a neurologically and psychiatrically healthy group. Notably, the measures of executive function are often administered to measure cognitive impairment in people with brain damage. In our research, we used the executive function measures to assess a neurologically normal group of individuals.
What did you find out?
We uncovered a unique pattern of relationships among our variables. Our study was perhaps one of the first to reveal that both executive function and trait impulsivity uniquely contributed to the prediction of total risk-taking frequency.
Interestingly, only certain constructs were tied to specific risk domains; mental flexibility was uniquely associated with risky sexual behaviors and substance misuse. On the other hand, another executive function construct, concept formation and abstract reasoning, corresponded uniquely with antisocial behavior. Trait impulsivity was only linked with sexual misconduct. Collectively, these results demonstrate that:
- Both cognitive ability and personality traits are tied to one’s potential to engage in risky acts.
- Among different types of risk-taking, executive functions and impulsivity may uniquely account for risk outcomes.
What can TU learn from your findings?
Our results have immediate implications for TU students and administration. Faculty and staff have the task of admitting students and finding them the best routes for success. However, with every student, comes barriers. These might include social risk factors, such as a propensity to behave impulsively or engage in drinking, unprotected sex and harming others when dealing with stress or other setbacks.
In a college environment especially, binge drinking and its correlates seem to be predicted by executive function, namely mental flexibility. Students who are without brain damage but show weaknesses in this domain are likely at greatest risk to engage in binge drinking and promiscuous sexual behaviors, thereby placing them at heightened vulnerability for health risks and presumably attrition from college.
It seems likely that students come to TU with poor executive function skills. It is possible this may reflect underlying brain function in these students. We know that the brain continues to develop into the 20s, and areas of the frontal lobe are often the last to complete this development. Executive function measures such as those used in this research are especially sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction. Although the participants in this research were without diagnosed brain damage, their tendency to engage in risky acts may reflect variation in brain function.
It may be useful for staff involved in the initial admissions and adjustment process to pay attention to factors which might lead to poor outcomes. Based on our data, trait-level variables, such as impulsivity and poor decision-making may have important implications for individuals likely to behave inappropriately. Such acts may lead to severe consequences and may negatively impact TU’s ability to serve the student and others affected by the student’s behaviors. More detail-oriented evaluation of students on admission or when enduring stressful experiences, may lead to uncovering these factors. Ultimately, our data elucidate red flags which should be addressed among healthy young adults.