Ph.D Psychology, Queen's '12
Alumna's time at Queen's may be over, but her research keeps on giving
By Sharday Mosurinjohn
In 2010, the SGS profiled Psychology PhD student Karen Blair about her work on same-sex and mixed-sex romantic relationships and how support from family and friends impacts both the relationship and the couple's health – now, three years later, she’s Dr. Blair and she’s expanding her research as a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Utah lab where she received a SSHRC travel grant to work in 2009 under the supervision of the renowned psychologist Dr. Lisa Diamond.
Recently, Blair was “doing some housekeeping” by closing up the longitudinal study from her dissertation when she noticed something interesting. During her doctoral work at Queen’s Sexual Health Research Lab, Blair – who you can bet is, at any given moment, in the midst of running several online studies – had decided to diverge from the usual participation incentive of offering prize draws. She gave participants the additional option to donate their points to the following charities: Human Rights Commission, The Canadian Red Cross, UNICEF, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, Product Red (World AIDS Foundation), EGALE Canada, the Point Foundation and the Ottawa Humane Society. And it turned out that an impressive number of survey respondents had, in fact, opted to donate their participation points to charity.
As participants went through one of Blair’s studies, each point they earned could be used as one prize draw entry, or, they could save up 1000 points to equal $1.00 toward a charity of their choosing. “It doesn't sound like the greatest ratio,” laughs Blair, “but I had to make sure we didn't end up donating more than we could afford! The average participant would likely earn between 2000 and 6000 points during the course of the study, and we had thousands of participants, so technically, if everyone had donated all of their points, we'd be looking at thousands of dollars.” As it turns out, 384 040 points were donated, which works out to $384.04.
“Bet you can’t guess which charity got the most” Blair teases. Given that her research has always been dedicated to mitigating the dearth of research generated by and for queer people, EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) Canada seemed the likeliest choice – but it was actually the Humane Society that came out on top, followed by the Human Rights Commission in second place and the Canadian Red Cross in third.
Karen with her fiancee and family of dogs
“Considering that participants could have entered their points into draws for iPods, cash, gift cards, travel certificates, etc.,” says Blair, “I'm impressed with the number that were donated to charity and I think I will definitely use the method again.” In Blair’s opinion, the success of the method had to do not just with participants enjoying the physical act of allocating their points, or being provided with something tangible for their effort, but with the fact that“a lot of participants really appreciated the research that was being done.” Blair thinks that alone was compensation for their time. Plus, “having the option to give to charity likely appeals to those who are pro-social enough to participate in social justice research.”
In fact, “there's a lot of social psychological research on how paying someone to do something changes their perspective and motivation” Blair remarks. “The problem is, once you start paying people, they take a different perspective on participating - now they are doing it for the money and their efforts may end up being more in line with the amount they are being paid rather than how interested they are in the topic or how motivated they are to contribute to science through their participation.” The risk of yielding poor quality data is a particularly big concern with online research, which is the majority of what Blair does. “It's easy to randomly select responses and then hit submit,” she admits, “and if the end goal is to get your $10.00 then you might just do that. But if your end goal is to tell me about how you've experienced life as, for example, a femme-identified individual, and you're really excited that someone is finally giving you an outlet for your experiences, then you're probably going to provide more honest and detailed responses than you would have if you were lured in with the cash!”
Blair’s newest studies, funded by one of a handful of the CIHR fellowships for 2012-2013 to be granted to someone studying outside of Canada, have greater offline components. One involves putting people in a “somewhat natural environment,” Blair explains wryly, and then exposing them to a same-sex or mixed-sex PDA (that, is, a “public display of affection”), and measuring their physiological responses and mood responses. Blair is interested in determining whether prejudiced individuals have a measureable, physiological response to witnessing the target of their prejudice. In a related line of research, Blair wants to further our understanding of how affection within relationships influences our relationship well-being and health. After determining whether physical affection in a relationship has positive outcomes – “I'm assuming that it does,” says Blair, “and there is a bit of research to support that” – she will determine whether the benefit extends to PDAs. For the most part, she expects that it should – that is, “until we get to a marginalized couple.”
In a contemporary social environment characterized by “modern homonegativity” more so than old-fashioned homophobia, Blair expects that “in same-sex couples, there may only be positive effects for private affection while public affection may actually increase stress.” By way of explaining the term “modern homonegativity,” Blair quotes one of her recent articles: “modern homonegativity is characterised by abstract concerns such as the belief that gay men and lesbian women are too demanding and seek ‘special’ rights and privileges or that sexual minorities have a tendency to ‘flaunt their sexuality’ as a source of personal pride.” In contrast to outright hatred or blatant moral judgments against non-heterosexual people, modern homonegativity “kind of represents the ‘tolerance’ perspective.” On the other end of the spectrum, this “tolerance” approach also stands in contrast with the “complete acceptance” that allows displays of heterosexuality to go virtually unnoticed or be considered unremarkable. For Blair’s study, what all of this might mean is that same-sex couples “may be more likely to avoid PDAs, and hence lose out on a potential source of positive interaction and stress reduction that is available to non-marginalized couples.”
It’s obvious that turning questions and curiosities into studies, especially online studies, is something of a specialty for Blair. And it’s on this topic that she wants to share with fellow students a piece of advice: “keep track of your ‘they should really do a study on that…’ musings, because there's no reason you can't find someone to collaborate with to actually do the studies.” “While I was at Queen's,” says Blair, “I had my dissertation study, but I also did a study on cybersex, a study on vulvar pain in lesbians, a study on support for relationships from parents vs. friends, and a cross cultural comparison of modern homonegativity. None of them went into my dissertation at all. I think students just don't realize what they can do.” Her outlook? “This is what the university is there for,” after all. “It is an institute of research and curiosity.” The beauty of being part of such an institute, as Blair sees it, is that when we wonder about something, instead of relying on what a search engine might tell us, we can turn our “curiosity into something that yields answers” – and, of course, more questions.
To read more on homonegativity, check out this recent article co-authored by Blair with a colleague in Ireland.