Is my research me-search?

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.

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This is me with the world’s most fascinating study subjects

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?