Monday, February 28, 2011

NEW STUDY FINDS TO ESCAPE BLAME BE A VICTIM NOT A HERO

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Great works and praiseworthy behavior may bring respect and admiration, but these won't help us to escape blame when we do something wrong, says a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Harvard University. To do that, the researchers say, one needs to be a victim not a hero!

In the study, participants responded to a number of scenarios that mirrored real-life moral transgressions, from stealing money to harming someone. Results revealed that, no matter how many previous good deeds someone had done, they received just as much blame - if not more - than someone with a less heroic background.

"People may come down even harder on someone like the Dalai Lama, than they do on 'Joe Blow,' said author Kurt Gray, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland." However, in our research those who have suffered in the past received significantly less blame - even if such suffering was both totally unrelated to the misdeed and long since past."

The article, titled "To Escape Blame, Don't be a Hero - be a Victim" is published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The findings are based on three experiments conducted by Gray and Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University.

"Our research suggests that morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds," said Gray, who directs the Mind Perception and Morality Lab at the University of Maryland. "Instead, people ignore heroic pasts - or even count them against you - when assigning blame."

Gray suggests that the explanation for these findings is our tendency to divide the world up into moral agents - those who do good and evil - and moral patients - those who receive good or evil. "Psychologically, the perceived distance between a hero and a villain is quite small, whereas there's a wide gap between a villain and a victim. This means that heroes are easily recast as evil doers, whereas it's very hard to turn a victim into a villain."

In the experiments involved in this study, those who highlighted past suffering were held less responsible for transgressions and given less punishment. According to the authors, this fact suggests an explanation for why many celebrities immediately go into rehab or claim victimhood after being caught doing something wrong. Of course, this research doesn't address whether someone is actually blameworthy, but it does indicate a clear strategy for escaping blame.

In fact their research finds that people had trouble even remembering the misdeeds of victims. In one experiment, people read about either a hero, normal person, or a victim stealing some money, and then were given a surprise memory test after. Far fewer people remembered the victim stealing money.

The authors note that there certainly are benefits from good deeds for both individuals and society. For example they say, "not only do virtuous deeds help the recipient of the deed, but research suggests that even small acts of good can serve to significantly improve the doers mood."

But "whether you are trying to defend yourself against a spouse's wrath for a missed birthday or save yourself from execution for a grisly murder, your task is to become the ultimate victim . . . with stories of childhood abuse, of broken hearts and broken arms," Gray and Wegner write.

(Photo: Butch Kriege)

University of Maryland

GEOLOGISTS GET UNIQUE AND UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY TO STUDY MAGMA

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Geologists drilling an exploratory geothermal well in 2009 in the Krafla volcano in Iceland encountered a problem they were simply unprepared for: magma (molten rock or lava underground) which flowed unexpectedly into the well at 2.1 kilometers (6,900 ft) depth, forcing the researchers to terminate the drilling.

"To the best of our knowledge, only one previous instance of magma flowing into a geothermal well while drilling has been documented," said Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who led the research team. "We were drilling a well that was designed to search for very deep – 4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet) – geothermal resources in the volcano. While the magma flow interrupted our project, it gave us a unique opportunity to study the magma and test a very hot geothermal system as an energy source."

Currently, a third of the electric power and 95 percent of home heating in Iceland is produced from steam and hot water that occurs naturally in volcanic rocks.

"The economics of generating electric power from such geothermal steam improves the higher its temperature and pressure," Elders explained. "As you drill deeper into a hot zone the temperature and pressure rise, so it should be possible to reach an environment where a denser fluid with very high heat content, but also with unusually low viscosity occurs, so-called 'supercritical water.' Although such supercritical water is used in large coal-fired electric power plants, no one had tried to use supercritical water that should occur naturally in the deeper zones of geothermal areas."

Elders and colleagues report in the March issue of Geology (the research paper was published online on Feb. 3) that although the Krafla volcano, like all other volcanoes in Iceland, is basaltic (a volcanic rock containing 45-50 percent silica), the magma they encountered is a rhyolite (a volcanic rock containing 65-70 percent silica).

"Our analyses show that this magma formed by partial melting of certain basalts within the Krafla volcano," Elders said. "The occurrence of minor amounts of rhyolite in some basalt volcanoes has always been something of a puzzle. It had been inferred that some unknown process in the source area of magmas, in the mantle deep below the crust of the Earth, allows some silica-rich rhyolite melt to form in addition to the dominant silica-poor basalt magma."

Elders explained that in geothermal systems water reacts with and alters the composition of the rocks, a process termed "hydrothermal alteration." "Our research shows that the rhyolite formed when a mantle-derived basaltic magma encountered hydrothermally altered basalt, and partially melted and assimilated that rock," he said.

Elders and his team studied the well within the Krafla caldera as part of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, an industry-government consortium, to test whether geothermal fluids at supercritical pressures and temperatures could be exploited as sources of power. Elders's research team received support of $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.5 million from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

In the spring of 2009 Elders and his colleagues progressed normally with drilling the well to 2 kilometers (6,600 feet) depth. In the next 100 meters (330 feet), however, multiple acute drilling problems occurred. In June 2009, the drillers determined that at 2104 meters (6,900 feet) depth, the rate of penetration suddenly increased and the torque on the drilling assembly increased, halting its rotation. When the drill string was pulled up more than 10 meters (33 feet) and lowered again, the drill bit became stuck at 2095 meters (6,875 feet). An intrusion of magma had filled the lowest 9 meters (30 feet) of the open borehole. The team terminated the drilling and completed the hole as a production well.

"When the well was tested, high pressure dry steam flowed to the surface with a temperature of 400 Celsius or 750 Fahrenheit, coming from a depth shallower than the magma," Elders said. "We estimated that this steam could generate 25 megawatts of electricity if passed through a suitable turbine, which is enough electricity to power 25,000 to 30,000 homes. What makes this well an attractive source of energy is that typical high-temperature geothermal wells produce only 5 to 8 megawatts of electricity from 300 Celsius or 570 Fahrenheit wet steam."

Elders believes it should be possible to find reasonably shallow bodies of magma, elsewhere in Iceland and the world, wherever young volcanic rocks occur.

"In the future these could become attractive sources of high-grade energy," said Elders, who got involved in the project in 2000 when a group of Icelandic engineers and scientists invited him to join them to explore concepts of developing geothermal energy.

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project has not abandoned the search for supercritical geothermal resources. The project plans to drill a second deep hole in southwest Iceland in 2013.

(Photo: Bjarni Palssen)

University of California, Riverside

REGROWING HAIR: UCLA-VA RESEARCHERS MAY HAVE ACCIDENTALLY DISCOVERED A SOLUTION

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It has been long known that stress plays a part not just in the graying of hair but in hair loss as well. Over the years, numerous hair-restoration remedies have emerged, ranging from hucksters' "miracle solvents" to legitimate medications such as minoxidil. But even the best of these have shown limited effectiveness.

Now, a team led by researchers from UCLA and the Veterans Administration that was investigating how stress affects gastrointestinal function may have found a chemical compound that induces hair growth by blocking a stress-related hormone associated with hair loss — entirely by accident.

The serendipitous discovery is described in an article published in the online journal PLoS One.

"Our findings show that a short-duration treatment with this compound causes an astounding long-term hair regrowth in chronically stressed mutant mice," said Million Mulugeta, an adjunct professor of medicine in the division of digestive diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a corresponding author of the research. "This could open new venues to treat hair loss in humans through the modulation of the stress hormone receptors, particularly hair loss related to chronic stress and aging."

The research team, which was originally studying brain–gut interactions, included Mulugeta, Lixin Wang, Noah Craft and Yvette TachĂ© from UCLA; Jean Rivier and Catherine Rivier from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; and Mary Stenzel-Poore from the Oregon Health and Sciences University.

For their experiments, the researchers had been using mice that were genetically altered to overproduce a stress hormone called corticotrophin-releasing factor, or CRF. As these mice age, they lose hair and eventually become bald on their backs, making them visually distinct from their unaltered counterparts. The Salk Institute researchers had developed the chemical compound, a peptide called astressin-B, and described its ability to block the action of CRF. Stenzel-Poore had created an animal model of chronic stress by altering the mice to overproduce CRF.

UCLA and VA researchers injected the astressin-B into the bald mice to observe how its CRF-blocking ability affected gastrointestinal tract function. The initial single injection had no effect, so the investigators continued the injections over five days to give the peptide a better chance of blocking the CRF receptors. They measured the inhibitory effects of this regimen on the stress-induced response in the colons of the mice and placed the animals back in their cages with their hairy counterparts.

About three months later, the investigators returned to these mice to conduct further gastrointestinal studies and found they couldn't distinguish them from their unaltered brethren. They had regrown hair on their previously bald backs.

"When we analyzed the identification number of the mice that had grown hair we found that, indeed, the astressin-B peptide was responsible for the remarkable hair growth in the bald mice," Mulugeta said. "Subsequent studies confirmed this unequivocally."

Of particular interest was the short duration of the treatments: Just one shot per day for five consecutive days maintained the effects for up to four months.

"This is a comparatively long time, considering that mice's life span is less than two years," Mulugeta said.

So far, this effect has been seen only in mice. Whether it also happens in humans remains to be seen, said the researchers, who also treated the bald mice with minoxidil alone, which resulted in mild hair growth, as it does in humans. This suggests that astressin-B could also translate for use in human hair growth. In fact, it is known that the stress-hormone CRF, its receptors and other peptides that modulate these receptors are found in human skin.

UCLA

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