There are some really terrible — dare I say deplorable — things happening in the United States right now. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to assume that we are powerless to stop the runaway train. But the midterm elections will take place in under a month, and they provide an opportunity for us, collectively, to change course. In the lead up to the elections, we all have a part to play in tilting the scales toward justice by encouraging others — friends, family, and even strangers — to vote on November 6.
And fortunately, there are organizations that can help us do this outreach. I recently learned about Vote Forward, which provides a template letter and addresses to volunteers who want to encourage others to vote. Volunteers hand-write their notes to tell recipients why they’ve pledged to vote, and encouraging those receiving the letter to do the same (though not for a specific candidate). All Vote Forward letters will be sent out on October 30 — one week before the elections — so that the reminder is fresh in voters’ minds on election day.
For many people, like me, reaching out to strangers through letters (or postcards) feels good — it gives us the sense that at least we’re doing something. Fortunately, research shows that we’re actually doing more than making ourselves feel good with such efforts: evaluations of “Please vote” letters have revealed that their impact is real. Those writing don’t have to be satisfied with the feeling that they’re doing something positive; they can know that they truly are contributing to a higher voter turnout.
For instance, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, almost 7,000 people who voted in the 2016 election (but not in other elections) were included in a study. One thousand of these potential voters were randomly assigned to receive a letter; the rest did not. Among those who received a letter, 52.9% voted, while among those who did not, only 49.5% did. This may not seem like a huge difference, but in close elections, this difference is more than enough to affect the outcome.
Over the past (almost) two years, I’ve been shocked, disappointed, and outraged at our country’s leaders and the horrific attitudes and policies they’re promoting. It’s often tempting to unplug the Internet, blast upbeat music, and pretend that America is a land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. But denial won’t reunite asylum-seeking families, bring justice to victims of police violence or sexual assault, or take steps to save our planet from climate disasters.
If you feel as I do, I invite you to pick up a pen and reach out to others — remind them that election day is November 6 and that their vote matters. Sign up to write for evidence-backed efforts like Vote Forward or Postcards to Voters (an effort I’ve written about previously), and donate your time and a few stamps to improving our democracy. Our collective votes are our only way out of this mess, and we’re running out of time.
For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering to write postcards to registered voters to alert or remind them of upcoming elections (as well as to mention the Democratic candidate running in that election). My postcards are part of a grassroots effort called Postcards to Voters, which has picked up lots of steam — there are over 18,000 volunteers who have collectively written and sent over half a million postcards.
As I understand it, the primary goal of Postcards to Voters is not to persuade. We’re sending notices to registered Democrats about Democratic candidates, so I predict that few are undecided about or opposed to the candidate they receive a postcard about. Instead, the primary goal is to increase voter turnout (among people who are already likely to vote for the candidate); it’s a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiative.
I mentioned this project to a friend who asked me whether there’s research on the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters. To the best of my knowledge, this project hasn’t been studied, and that does make the scientific thinker in me slightly uncomfortable. But only slightly. Because whether it’s effective for the recipient, I know that creating the postcards is a positive outlet for my political angst. I don’t need research to show me that.
But also, there’s a substantial body of research, especially from political science, that can shed light on when and how Postcards to Voters can be successful for GOTV. Fortunately, a number of studies suggest that while campaigns rarely persuade voters, they can be effective in boosting voter turnout, especially for primary elections (which is what Postcards to Voters is aimed at during this time of year).
However, some research on GOTV initiatives is less than encouraging:
The guide to grassroots elections Get Out the Vote determined that GOTV efforts averaged one vote every 15 door knocks by volunteers ($31 dollars per vote), 35 phone calls by volunteers ($35 dollars per vote), or 273 pieces of nonpartisan direct mail ($91 dollars per vote, no effect from partisan direct mail).
Along these lines, another study revealed that Democrats who received mail reminders to vote in the 2016 Presidential election did not vote at a higher rate than those who didn’t receive the reminders. Again, this is not encouraging, but we have to consider the context of the 2016 Presidential election: I highly doubt that many Americans forgot to vote on November 8, 2016. For months leading up to the election, the American public was swamped with information, opinions, and advertisements about the election. Those who were eligible to vote and were inclined to do so were likely going to vote whether they received a mail reminder or not. This is a stark contrast to elections that are probably way less publicized, like for the Yolo (CA) County District Attorney or the Nebraska Legislative District 6 State Legislature positions (both of which I have written postcards for this past week). There is a much greater opportunity for GOTV mail like our postcards to make a difference when voters aren’t already inundated by information about the election, when a message could actually serve as a reminder. In fact, at least one past study shows that text message reminders can be sufficient for reminding people to vote.
Additional research points to other features of productive GOTV campaigns, some of which are also features of Postcards to Voters. For example, personalized messages work better than generic ones: Since all Postcards to Voters are handwritten, they have the potential to be much more personal than mass-produced messages.
It wouldn’t be impossible to directly study the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters, but rigorously studying the initiative would compromise a lot of what makes the effort so great. For one, an ideal study might require the postcards to be standardized, so that every voter gets exactly the same information, presented in similar ways, with the same designs or embellishments on the card. There is currently a base level of standardization — three points (the candidate, the election date, and one other piece of info) that must be included on each card, but there are many other points for postcard creators to choose among if they’d like to add more info, and the design is totally up to them. This is a wonderful aspect of the project, and probably one that keeps people excited to continue making more postcards.
In addition, a controlled experiment would mean that some people (about half of the registered Democrats for the elections that Postcards to Voters target) would not get postcards — they would be the control group. Then researchers would have to track, for each election, whether each registered Democrat received a postcard or not and whether each registered Democrat voted or not, in order to examine the potential relationship between receiving a postcard and voting. It’s possible some researchers are tracking this exact information right now, but as far as I know, voters aren’t being randomly assigned to receive postcards or not. That would mean that we’re passing up sending postcards to half of our target audience, just so we could have a neat control group for experimental reasons. My understanding is that we’re sending postcards to as many registered Democratic voters as possible for each election, rather than setting some aside for control purposes. Again, that is probably a very good thing.
Write with us! Email: Join@TonyTheDemocrat.org Together we’re flipping and defending key seats for Democrats across the country! pic.twitter.com/HpnZkK8ZQo
— I am the Kwisatz Haderach (@KimVanMunching) May 1, 2018
Postcards to Voters is not an academic exercise. It’s not designed to contribute to political science theory on who votes and why. It’s designed to GOTV as powerfully as possible, to reach as many voters as possible, and to engage as many people as possible in the creation process. It’s true that it hasn’t been scientifically validated, but it does rest on a foundation of research that shows that GOTV efforts can be effective. Personally, I’m willing to forgo the hard proof on this one in exchange for maximizing inclusivity and participation in the democratic process.
Sometimes I think about climate change and feel a gripping fear. I might step outside to a 60-degree day in the middle of January or read an article about the worsening state of our air, land, and sea, and experience a sudden panic. I have a feeling of impending doom, lack of control, anger at decision-makers who aren’t doing enough to fix this global problem.
But that’s just me.
How does climate change affect other people’s mental health? In previousposts, I’ve written about how the way climate change is framed can affect the way people think about it — whether they think it’s a real threat and what they might be willing to do about it. This post takes acceptance of climate change as a starting point, and focuses on the psychological effects of perceived and actual effects of climate change. Once climate change is accepted or experienced as a reality, what are its impacts on mental health?
A recent study revealed two distinct responses. While some people have little anxiety, others experience substantial stress, and in some cases, depression, to their perception of the impacts of climate change. What causes different people to have such different reactions? The researchers examined the extent to which people had egoistic concern (about the effects of climate change on themselves), altruistic concern (about the effects of climate change on others, such as future generations), and biospheric concern (about nature, plants, and animals). They found that people with biospheric concern reported the highest levels of stress related to climate change, as well as the highest levels of depression.
Other reviews (1)(2) describe additional mental health conditions that, for some people, are linked to the gradual effects of climate change. These include anxiety, depression, and substance use. We can also expect climate change to negatively impact physical health — for example leading to increases in asthma, allergies, exposure to pests and toxic substances, and heat-related death, and a decrease in general fitness.
The gradual effects of climate change will continue to wear away at our mental and physical health until we address the problem.
The sudden effects of climate change are also harmful to mental health. As natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, they threaten the mental health of those who are directly affected. One project that shows these mental health impacts clearly is the The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (“RISK”) Project. For this project, the researchers had already begun a longitudinal study of vulnerable women (poor single mothers in community college) in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, they continued to conduct surveys and interviews of these women, which allowed them to better understand the tolls that a natural disaster can take on mental health, particularly for people who are already vulnerable.
An article on “Katrina Brain” reports what they found: 4 years after the storm, 20% of their participants still reported anxiety and depression that was higher than they had reported before the storm. A small group of participants reported even more serious mental health impacts like PTSD. The mental health impacts of storms like Katrina tend to be especially bad for people with low incomes and those without strong social supports.
Fortunately, about a third of the participants reported “post-traumatic growth,” a sign of resilience. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all completely doomed to psychological ruin when disasters hit, but it’s not consolation for the “psychological scars” that disasters like Katrina inflict on those who are directly affected and most vulnerable.
How many wars have you encountered today? Maybe you saw a headline about the war in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but it’s even more likely that you read an article or had a conversation about a figurative war: like the war on cancer, obesity, or poverty. Maybe you’ve even heard about wars on salad, plastic bags, or Pantsuit Nation. There are a lot of wars going on right now.
A recent paper by Stephen Flusberg, Teenie Matlock, and Paul Thibodeau shines a spotlight on these war metaphors. The researchers combine insights from psychology, linguistics, and sociology to discuss why we use war metaphors, how they shape our thinking, and recommendations for productively communicating about figurative wars. Here are some things I learned while reading their paper.
Why so many wars?
One study found that 17% of all Times Magazine articles published between 1981 and 2000 and 15% of all Newsweek articles published in the same time span contained at least one war metaphor. Considering the breadth of topics those magazines cover, the figures suggest that there are a lot of figurative wars in their pages (and, by extension, in public discourse).
There are a couple explanations for the popularity of war metaphors. First, they draw on common shared knowledge. Most people know a lot about literal wars. We have structured knowledge about them — for example, that wars are caused by disputes, involve militaries that engage in different forms of physical fighting, and that wars end with winners and losers. When someone uses a war metaphor, then, their audience will almost definitely understand the domain being referenced and will have a wealth of knowledge to connect to the topic at hand.
War metaphors also carry a sense of urgency. They can tap into emotions, capture attention, and motivate action. These features are helpful when a communicator’s intention is to change the way people think and behave about something. For example, referring to a war on obesity might trigger a sense of fear and urgency for many people, inspiring them to get off their couch or advocate for healthier school lunch options.
Another reason war metaphors are used often is precisely because they’re common. We’re so familiar with war metaphors that when we encounter one it’s not difficult to process it; we can do so almost automatically. This process acts like a growing snowball — the more we encounter war metaphors, the more natural they are to us, so the more likely we are to keep using them. Fighting cancer is a good example of this, since it’s such a common sentiment that we hardly even notice it’s a metaphor anymore.
Are war metaphors helpful? Hurtful?
Studies show that war metaphors can instill a sense of urgency and motivate people to change their mindsets and behavior, which is often necessary. For example, when people read about a war against climate change, they felt more urgency for reducing emissions and indicated they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than when they read about a race against climate change. The intensity of the war metaphor shaped mindsets in a way that the race metaphor did not.
But war metaphors can also have unintended counterproductive consequences for the way people think about issues. For example, when a cancer experience is referred to as a battle, people are more likely to think the sick person will feel guilty if they don’t recover than when it’s referred to as a journey. For patients, referring to their experience as a war can be de-motivating, as shown, for example, by a study that found that people who thought of their experience as a battle experienced more anxiety and depression than those who thought of their experience as a journey. War-terms also make people less likely to endorse cancer prevention behaviors than neutral terms.
Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts about war metaphors sum up one of their major limitations:
War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.
Guidelines for using war metaphors
Metaphors shape thought by tapping into our complex and structured ways of thinking about the world, and emphasizing certain features of the topic at hand. For this reason, metaphors will mean different things for different people (and especially across different cultures) and in different contexts, so their effects on reasoning will vary. There’s no black-and-white advice for whether to use war metaphors or not, but research has started to reveal how they affect reasoning in different circumstances. This research has paved the way for a few recommendations:
Use war metaphors when the topic being described really poses an imminent threat, since they can tap into people’s emotions and incite fear. Climate change is one of those issues. Salad is not.
Use war metaphors only when the topic being described actually shares features with wars. If people can’t immediately understand why something is being compared to a war, the metaphor will likely detract from any effective persuasion.
Use war metaphors initially, and then reframe. They can draw attention to an issue and elicit an emotional response, but they lose efficacy over time as they become overly familiar and people tune out (just as public enthusiasm toward literal wars tends to wane over time).
Explain how the issue at hand is like a war, and how it is not. Since war frames will not have the same effect in all contexts, misunderstandings can be avoided by explaining the connection between the given topic and a war, instead of expecting all people to identify the same connections in all circumstances.
War metaphors make up a large part of public discourse, so it’s important for us to keep working to understand how they shape our thoughts and when they should be used (or avoided). This paper provided a useful analysis for communicators who want to help people think about some of society’s most pressing issues in new ways. But since we still have a lot of research to do on these metaphors, communicators should wield them with caution.
I’m just over halfway through teaching an intensive introduction to research methods in cognitive science right now. We’re discussing experiment logic, research ethics, and a variety of methods researchers can use to learn about cognition and behavior. The students are practicing scientific thinking, both in our class discussions and in their writing assignments. You can check out some of the fantastic work they’re doing on our class blog.
This is my first time as instructor of record, and the class meets for a 7 hours each week, so I knew from the start that there would be many challenges. One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated is how difficult it is to really gauge what the students are learning. Like really learning, not just memorizing or considering at a surface level. I’m trying a bunch of strategies that would seem to help with this challenge. Like:
Asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have questions?” a subtle difference that suggests I expect them to have questions and invite them to ask.
Building in lots of metacognitive or “formative assessment” opportunities — activities like homework reflections and in-class conceptual questions that are attempted individually and in small groups. These are intended to provide us all the chance to catch misconceptions or topics the students are unclear on.
An interim survey, asking students whether the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right, and to describe elements of the class that are working for them and others that could be changed to improve their learning.
These strategies are all helping to some extent. Students are asking questions during class, we’re clarifying lecture topics in our group discussions, and the survey feedback indicated that for the most part, class speed, format, and expectations are all going fine.
Yet each time I leave class, I can’t with much confidence answer: Are the students really getting it? After the first few classes, this lingering question frustrated me. Of course one way to assess learning is through tests. We will have an exam, where I can get a sense of how well the students can repeat the content of my lectures back, and even how well they can apply the concepts I taught to new contexts, but of course tests can’t perfectly reflect what individual students have learned. Plus, the exam will take place after the last class, when there’s no time to remedy conceptual gaps or misconceptions. The exam is not the answer to this challenge. How can I gauge true learning in the meantime?
Since the first few classes, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that I might always leave class feeling less than 100% confident that the students really grasped whatever I was trying to convey. I’ve accepted the fact that gauging learning is really hard, especially in a class like this, where the primary goal is to lay a conceptual foundation that can be applied to research or scientific literacy later on. It’s hard, but I’ve learned and implemented the strategies I mentioned above because they chip away at the challenge. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to always know precisely what’s clear and what’s not (the students themselves can’t even always be expected to know if they’re clear on something). I’ll just have to keep trying to get as close as I can.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
But mostly, it was the worst, as 300 exhausted passengers fended for themselves to find cots at 3am in Boston’s Logan Airport.
At first we were mildly frustrated, as we waited 3 hours at the gate for our flight that was continually delayed for mechanical reasons. Our frustration grew when we then learned that our flight was canceled for the evening: “Sorry, folks, we’re not going to be able to fly out tonight. Please go to counter 36 for more information and hotel vouchers.”
We vacillated between hope and despair as we waited for 5 more hours for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations that never materialized for most of us. We started seeing glimmers of hope in everything (A man with a suit! He’s coming to fix the problem!). By 3am even our mirages were put to rest when an announcement informed us that there were no more available hotels in the Boston area and that we would receive more information at 10am.
Based on the avoidant airline personnel we had encountered to that point, few people were surprised when 10am came and went, and we had received no update. By 2pm, we were receiving new tickets for a flight that would take off at 5. By 8pm, after another delay because the flight crew had been stuck in traffic on their way to airport, we were out of emotions. A converted air tanker took off over the Atlantic Ocean 29 hours after scheduled departure with over 300 zombies on board.
During those 29 hours, my fellow passengers and I witnessed some of the ugliness humans are capable of. Some people jogged and jostled each other each time an announcement directed us to form yet another line – for hotel vouchers, meal tickets, or new boarding passes. At random intervals, a new passenger would break down and start shouting, so the state police came to make sure things remained civil. When the airport employees brought “food” and drinks to the line of people waiting for nonexistent hotel vouchers, some people rushed to grab what they could from the stash of mini water bottles and bags of Cheez-Its that made you wonder if someone in the factory had snagged a handful before sealing the bag with 5 crackers in it.
Our mass sleepover in Logan airport was uncomfortable and denigrating, but for every sneer there were many smiles. We were not happy to be stuck in an airport, but the fact was that we were there. We got to know each other, we commiserated and, somehow, we laughed. I learned that to a Brit, Cheez-Its taste like sweaty socks. We shared – iPhones for those who needed to make calls, sweatshirts (because damn, air conditioned airports are really cold when you don’t have a blanket), and the coveted cots and blankets once we got our hands on them.
A week after this debacle, I still look back and cringe at this experience. But the entire time, I knew I’d get to a comfortable bed eventually where I could sleep for 11 hours. I knew I’d have a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the trip. When I stopped griping for a moment, I realized that knowing that those comforts were in my near future was a lot more than many people can say, as they find themselves wondering where they’ll sleep tonight, tomorrow night, and for the foreseeable future. We lived like refugees for one night, and it was a pain. But many people do it for years.
Depression is high on my Incredibly-important-topics-that-we-humans-struggle-to-make-sense-of list (with a list at least I can impose some order on things that are nearly impossible to grapple with otherwise). It’s prevalent — within a single year, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 6.7% of American adults over age 18 have struggle with depression.
And depression is really hard to wrap our heads around, whether we’re experiencing it or not. For one, we can’t really see it — people with depression look just like people without. Depression continues to challenge scientists — why do some people experience depression while others don’t? Why do some treatments work for certain patients and not for others?
Even though it’s a challenge to really understand depression, we still find ways to make some sense of it. One of those ways is through metaphor. We describe depression in terms of things we have more concrete experience with — enemies in war, darkness, lowness, or burdens, for example. Metaphors can both reflect and shape our thoughts about concepts like depression. Research gives some glimpses into the relationship between the metaphors we use to describe depression and how we think about it or actually feel. But there’s still so much we don’t know about depression metaphors and their effects on cognition. Here I present some of what research does reveal, sprinkled with my own speculation.
Depression as down
In English, it’s common to talk about sadness as feeling down. Depression is not the same as sadness, but it’s also often associated with being physically low. One reason might be that when we’re feeling sad or depressed, our bodies are often slouched or closer to the ground than when we’re feeling great. This idea that our natural bodily experiences, for example hanging our heads or looking down when we feel depressed, can give rise to conventional linguistic metaphors like “down in the dumps” is called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). CMT’s main claim is that linguistic metaphors reflect the way we already think about concepts. In other words, we say we need a “pick-me-up” because in our minds, depression is down in the same way that the ground is down. The literal and figurative meanings of depression are associated in mind.
Depression can be something that people fight or slay, or they may be beaten or attacked by it. On one hand, this might be a productive framing, since it implies that people can do something about their situation. They can choose the most appropriate weapons in their arsenal to strike back against their depression enemy.
But for the same reason, the enemy frame may be counterproductive. Many aspects of depression are outside a person’s control, which can be especially hard to understand if we haven’t personally experienced it. In this case, suggesting that a person should fight harder or better may backfire, implying that someone who doesn’t seem to be able to beat depression is too weak. There’s a fine line here.
Depression as darkness
#Hope in #depression is like lighting a match in the dark. We see a little then it's dark again. But we see enough to take another step
Darkness is another common metaphor for talking about depression. The origins may be similar to talking about depression as being down. When it’s cloudy or rainy, we often feel a more blah than when the sun is out (this association is especially relevant for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Again, talking about cloudy and rainy days as a basis for understanding depression conflates very normal sadness with depression, and clinical depression is so much more than a cloudy day feeling. But our experiences with dark, cloudy days may create a foundation for thinking about both common sadness and depression. Even when we’re indoors, dark spaces are often associated with fatigue and negative feelings.
Depression as a physical burden
I don't need to go to the gym, carrying the crushing weight of my stress and depression is enough of a work out.
It’s also common to think of depression as a physical burden we carry around. Fortunately, burdens can be unloaded, and research has documented positive experiences in psychotherapy can bring about a feeling of unloading a depression burden.
In fact, dynamicity seems to be a productive feature of many depression metaphors. Just as a burden can be unloaded, things that are dark can be brightened, low can be lifted, and enemies can be defeated (or become allies). Even though these metaphors are quite different on the surface, they also have similarities and seem to be compatible with each other.
Depression as multiple things at once
We mix metaphors naturally in speech. Referring to depression an enemy, for example, doesn’t mean I won’t then refer to it as a being down or dark (or that someone else I’m conversing with won’t, as you can see in the short Twitter exchange that follows):
@anthoknees thank you, as you are so generous to do, for sharing. I'm down in the well and you are a constant reminder that there is sky.
This next tweet also shows a blend of multiple metaphors. The text refers to hitting “rock bottom,” while the image shows a dark cloud. The words and image “say” different things, but we naturally integrate them into one mental image of a low, dark depression.
These mixed metaphors aren’t confusing at all. We don’t feel like the simultaneous depiction of depression as being both dark and a burden conflict because depression can be both things at once. Metaphors don’t create rigid structures that define our thoughts, but instead they create templates for thinking that can be overlapped and mixed and matched.
Are there ideal metaphors for depression?
On the whole, probably not. Each person will have their own preferred metaphors for making sense of depression. It’s key to be conscientious of the metaphors you encounter and produce, and to evaluate what they imply about mental illness. And if no conventional metaphors seem fitting, you might try designing your own or considering Bruce Springsteen’s comparison of depression to a car:
I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?
My first post was called Why write this blog? I was a fourth year undergrad, less than a week from graduation. Now I’m a fourth year PhD student, and uh… more than a week from graduation. Are the reasons I began blogging the same as the reasons I continue to blog?
Why I started blogging 4 years ago
I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.
There’s a funny paradox: on the one hand I want people to read what I write, but on the other, it can be paralyzing to actually think about people reading it when I’m trying to get words out. I deal with this by imagining that only a few people will read. I imagine someone who’s my quintessential audience. Usually, that’s my mom (you’re reading, right, mom?!). She’s educated and curious, but she’s not a cognitive scientist. She’s my ideal reader. So I imagine my mom reading, and no one else, and I just go with it.
It’s still hard to express your thoughts when you think smart people are listening and might criticize them. It took me a long time to be able to do this in person — in group meetings and talks — and I have no idea if my blog helped me with that. Throughout grad school, my relationship with criticism has evolved. Criticism is almost always an opportunity for improving your work, and actually has very little to do with me as a person. When I think of it that way, criticism is something to seek out, not to avoid.
I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.
Occasionally people engage with my posts in the comments or on social media, and it’s great to have those conversations.
It’s not the ideal platform for dialogue that I had hoped, but that’s ok.
I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:
“What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”
Why I still blog today
When I started blogging, I couldn’t entirely anticipate what my blogging experience would actually be like. Four years later, I may have even more reasons to blog than I did when I started.
My blog is somewhat of a lab. I can try things out – like a vlog, an infographic, or that megaphone graphic above. Do they make my posts more engaging? I don’t know, but I’m testing them out. If they flop, no harm done. I experiment with different topics, and I can use metrics that show me numbers of page views and how those readers got to my site for a rough idea of what resonates with people and how they’re finding my blog.
My blog also acts as an archive. It documents events like conferences and workshops I’ve attended, getting married, and the 2016 Presidentialelection, all through the lens of language and thought. My past posts help me recommend a book to a friend or find a paper I know I liked but can’t remember why. And it gives me ample opportunities for laughing at my past self. Like did it occur to me that acknowledging my college graduation by writing a post about euthenics at Vassar was maybe a bit perverse??
And I blog because it’s fun. It’s challenging, and it’s creative, and I make the rules. Some of my motivations might be unique, but it turns out I’m not alone in blogging “for the love of words.” In a recent post on her blog, From the Lab Bench, Paige Jarreau compares science bloggers’ reasons for blogging to Orwell’s “four great motives for writing.”
I’m a long-range thinker, but I don’t think I would have predicted when I clicked the “PUBLISH” button for the first time that I’d be clicking it for many of the same reasons four years later.
I recently listened to the inaugural episode of a new academic psychology podcast called The Black Goat (the podcast is great, by the way!). During the show, the hosts (Sanjay Srivastava, Alexa Tullett, and Simine Vazire) answered a question from an anonymous letter-writer who commented: I’ve been wondering how important it is to feel personally invested in what you study, like if it needs to be related to a part of you or your life that you care deeply about. The question was: should my research be me-search?
Me-search… I’d never heard of that term before. From the question and the hosts’ discussion, it seems that me-search is research driven by the researcher’s identity. It’s research that reflects something about the person doing it. Maybe it’s something you feel personally invested in for some reason beyond the typical reasons people are invested in their work: intellectual curiosity and because research progress means career progress.
On the one hand, it seems like it would be beneficial to be deeply passionate about the topic you research. That passion is more likely to lead to long-term motivation, which is crucial for academic research. Plus one for me-search.
But on the other hand, being personally invested in your research can be dangerous. If you really want a specific outcome, there’s a good chance you’ll get that outcome – whether that outcome actually reflects the state of the world or not. This doesn’t need to be intentional misconduct, either. For example, confirmation bias (which has been enjoying quite a bit of media spotlight lately) takes place when we (unintentionally) discount evidence that contradicts our prior belief, trust evidence that supports it, and even interpret neutral evidence as supporting that initial belief we held. (For more info, I have some past posts (1) (2) that describe confirmation bias in more detail.) Minus one for me-search?
The hosts didn’t come to a conclusion, but instead weighed pros and cons of me-search, suggesting to me that moderate me-search (something you feel connected to, but maybe not on a life-or-death level) might be a happy medium.
So I asked myself: is my work me-search? It does incorporate things I love: I’ve always been fascinated with humans — observing them, describing them, analyzing how they work. I grew up with younger sisters who were identical twins, and they made great study subjects — I took ample advantage of this situation.
I’ve also always been interested in language. My hobbies have always been reading and writing, and I was practically salivating when I got to take my first foreign language class (French) in high school. Humans and language are my jamz.
I study how language, especially metaphor, shapes the way we think. This work definitely incorporates, and probably stems from, some things I love, but is it my identity? Not really. More obvious examples of me-search might be bench science that could contribute to a cure for a disease someone I love has. Or researching the personality traits of people who grew up with younger siblings who were identical twins (because that would be a fascinating line of research — at least to me!). But I don’t do those things. Even though I do believe that language shapes the way we think and perceive the world, and of course I want my findings to be interesting because research careers require interesting findings, I don’t have any identity-driven motivation to find any particular outcomes.
But after working on a line of work for years (only 4, in my case), how can it not be a part of you?
I’ve created a variety of different me-search definitions for myself, and the one I use at any given moment influences whether I think my current work is me-search.
I’m curious about other researchers’ ideas of me-search: do you think your work should be classified this way, and do you think it’s more of an advantage or a disadvantage to think of your work as me-search?
I’m a homebody. Most Saturday mornings are complete with tea, reading blogs or fiction, and getting in a good workout. This Saturday was different, and I’m glad it was.
The March for Science has been in the works for a few months. During that time, people have debated whether it will exacerbate political divides and whether scientists should be political activists; plans grew for satellite marches in over 600 cities around the world; and so many people mobilized to attend a march or support scientific causes.
It was a cool experience to be in a place with tons of people all driven there by a common belief that science is crucial and a common priority to express that belief. It was fun to see creative signs, to come together with others in my department, and to hear some of the organized talks (especially those given by the middle school science fair winners – their projects sounded amazing!). But what blew my mind the most was the fact that people all around the world, from so many backgrounds, with different beliefs, opinions, and ideas, united around a cause that’s so much bigger than any individual person or country.