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.

IMG_0587
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?

Advertisements

Cognition at Work: A Celebration of CogSci Designed & Executed by Undergrads

This past weekend I was invited to present at UCSD’s Cognitive Science Student Association‘s annual conference. The undergraduate CSSA leaders pulled off a polished and fascinating conference, focusing on the role of cognitive science in all kinds of work, from design, to mental health, to academic research.

In the first half of the workshop I gave, they asked me to talk about my journey to cognitive science: how did I discover I wanted to pursue CogSci, how did I end up at UCSD, and what might lie ahead? This is a fun story to tell. It includes growing up in a tiny Massachusetts town with fascinating identical twin sisters and supportive parents. It also includes my undergraduate years at Vassar College, where I accidentally found Cognitive Science and took classes that truly nurtured my intellectual side and inspired me to learn more. I discovered UCSD’s unique Cognitive Science program and was dead set on getting in — and somehow I did. I’ve been having a blast researching the relationship between language and the mind, working with brilliant people, and exploring other intellectual interests. I talked about the essential skills for doing a PhD, and in response to the question: “what next?” I was honest: I don’t know! But I expect it’ll be exciting. Here are the slides from that portion of the workshop.

The second half of the workshop was focused on my Cognitive Science research. The two Research Assistants who have helped me collect data on the projects I wanted to share (David and Yahan) also helped me give the talk. I’m SO proud of the work they put into this project and the presentation, and I’m confident they inspired other undergrads in the audience. David and Yahan showed them that undergraduates can do great research AND communicate about it (which can be just as hard as the research itself!).

IMG_1669
David, Yahan, and I show our work.

Here’s a more legible version of our poster.

I left the conference feeling energized, and I hope many of the attendees did as well. It was a unique conference since most attendees were not there to promote their own work (since they were mainly undergrads). Of course there’s nothing wrong with academic conferences where promoting one’s work is a goal, but at this conference, attendees’ primary objectives were to learn, be inspired, and think about CogSci outside their classes. To me, it was a celebration of CogSci, and a great reminder of why I work in this really cool field at this really cool university.

Notes from The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis’s recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds, has received a lot of positive reviews. Others have written (and podcasted) extensively about the contents and merit of Lewis’s book (I especially like the NYT’s focus on the author and Kate Vane’s focus on the interwoven features of the story). There are plenty of places to find a great synopsis or commentary on the book, so I’ll just share some reflections on a few of my favorite quotes from this chronicle of the lives and collaboration of two scientists who introduced to the world many fundamental ideas about how humans think.

undoing

Danny would tell his students: “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it.

This strikes me as excellent advice for so many of us. In particular researchers often set out to evaluate a hypothesis, design and carry out an experiment to test it, and end up with data that don’t really speak to the hypothesis. They’re messy, but there seems to be some signal in the noise… they tell you something, but not what you had intended. Maybe this is especially true when you study humans. Either way, this is the point to step back and ask what you can learn, even if it’s not what you wanted to learn. I’m still working on this.

Danny’s advice to ask what it might be true of also seems to be good advice for communicating science more broadly. When communicating to someone with different background experiences and beliefs, if they express a concern like scientists are still uncertain about global warming, communicators will probably be tempted to quickly react: That’s false! It’s not true on the whole, but you can find the truth in it by recalling that there is actually uncertainty about details of the consequences — when, where, and what kinds of catastrophes will strike. There is not uncertainty among scientists that global warming, if left inadequately addressed, will be catastrophic. It’s just the catastrophic details that are unclear. Acknowledging the specifics of uncertainty in this case seems likely to help communicate the falseness of the claim that scientists are uncertain about global warming without alienating an audience.

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, [Danny] thought, was by studying the mistakes it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Isn’t this how we all come to understand ourselves better? Introspecting about the unideal — Why did my heart rate and breathing speed up during that conversation? Why was I rude to that person on the phone? Why do I want to be somewhere other than where I am right now? — I have come to know myself much better than by dwelling on picture-perfect moments.

The point of bothering to discover this was unclear, even to Danny, except that there was a demand for such stuff in psychology journals, and he thought that the measuring was itself good training for him. “I was doing science,” he said. “And I was being very deliberate about what I was doing. I consciously viewed what I was doing as filling a gap in my education, something I needed to do to become a serious scientist.”

My dissertation in a nutshell: I’m not always sure why I’m investigating the things I am, but I am always confident that doing so is helping me become a better scientist and a better thinker.

3240500871_bd1a2d300e_z.jpg
Danny Kahneman in 2009, Image by Eirik Solheim. CC

“The idea that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion was a California thing—that’s not how we did things in Jerusalem.”

Lol.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

Good research can happen when you have time and space to think. Cramming your life full of meetings and obligations may feel productive, but is more likely to lead to incremental progress, not true impactful work. I am still working to internalize this advice.

“Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading,” said Amos. “They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a coverup.”

Yes, yes, yes, but I’m unconvinced about the use of a coverup as a metaphor for a metaphor (meta, I know). Metaphor is a pervasive and unavoidable feature of human language and thought.

And with that comment, I have just engaged in confirmation bias and justified my own line of research. Back to research!

First year, through the eyes of a baby bird

From my journal, April 2014, 6 months into my first year of grad school.

1520362404_8d93ec1490_z
Baby bird by Ryan Keene. CC

This is what I feel like. Vulnerable, awkward, feeling tentative about leaving the comfort of my nest, beak wide open hoping to consume as much as possible.

I still feel like that sometimes. I think baby birds usually learn how to fly pretty quickly, but becoming a researcher is not so quick. I spent a while early in my grad career flapping my wings frantically – I was doing the activities that I saw everyone else doing, but I felt like I still wasn’t getting it in the way that they were. They’d flap and fly. I’d flap and stay grounded.

But gradually, my flapping started to lift me off the ground. Initially, I’d be airborne only briefly. Over time, I spent longer in the air. I’m still on the ground flapping some days, but I now spend much more time actually flying. I probably couldn’t yet withstand a full-blown winter migration, but I can get from place to place. The real miraculous thing is that some days I don’t even have to flap my wings so hard to fly. I flap a little, and with way less effort than I used to expend, I can soar.

But we all start as baby birds.

Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

2615333078_a897f00336_z
On top of Trinity Mt at 300ft by Craig Howell. CC

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

A grad student’s perspective on piecing together a stellar research team

This week I wrote for Quartzy’s blog, The Q, which focuses on “Life, Science, and Stories for Labs.” I hope I hit on all three with my post on cultivating a stellar research team. As a PhD student, I’m far from the position of putting together an entire lab research team, but my research does require that I assemble a microcosm of a larger lab group. The Research Assistants I work with are invaluable contributors to my research, so I’ve put a lot of thought into what’s important for a research team and what I can do to ensure we stay stellar.

Interested to hear thoughts on what other people find important for their research teams, and best practices for creating the ideal ethos for your team.

Here’s the post!

Slowing down

I recently had a (teary) conversation with a mentor about my dissertation. I’ve done a lot of research, much of which I’m not even planning to include in my dissertation, but I know (and my dissertation committee said) that my dissertation could use more depth. I was attempting to pitch a new experiment to add in, and I received feedback that I was probably trying to squeeze moisture from a rock that might give me a few drops, but that other projects would probably result in better bang for my buck (more important results for the time I’d have to put in). She suggested I might be sacrificing quality for speed.

My first reaction was to feel defensive. I’m pouring effort in, churning out experiments, grinding the data as quickly as possible, and drafting up the results. There’s not much validation in the PhD process: there are no gold stars and criticism far outweighs praise.

Further, academic work often feels like a race. You get credit for the number of publications you have and the impact factors of those publications. Early on a professor commented, “You are now in the paper business. Every activity you do in grad school should geared toward that end.” I’ve embraced my role in the paper business, assimilating academia’s publish or perish mentality into my work, allowing it to drive the papers I read, the experiments I run, and how I frame those experiments, creating new stories to explain unexpected results. I’m playing the game, and I think I’m playing it pretty well, and now she wants me to slow down?

2911067936_0869ef7be4_z
Slow Down by Arti Sandhu, CC

As our conversation (is it still a conversation if one person is struggling to make sentences amidst tears?) continued, I started to come around to what she was saying: yes, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, I am hyper-focused on forward progress, and no, I haven’t thought too much about whether the work I’m doing is really the most impactful it can be. I’m staying busy and making sure I have things to show for that busy-ness. I cannot rest until I check something off a list, and at that point I’ve probably added a few more items to the list anyway.

But since I already have good research, and I’m not running out of funding, maybe it is time to take a step back. I need to pull away from the quest to find yet another p-value that’s less than .05, and think about bigger ideas: What important answers do we still not have about how metaphors shape cognition? And how can I work on those? As I started truly believing that I should slow down, I stumbled upon this great post on The Slow Grad Student – great affirmation.

One thing that helps me take a step back in evaluating my research is to truly take a step back from work. No one helps me do that quite like my best friend (whom I’m married to, coincidentally!), and I spent the past weekend visiting him (Steven lives in San Antonio and I live in San Diego).

img_1076

I hope some of the time we spent jogging, cooking dinner, and working on our jigsaw puzzle has helped me recharge and put publish-or-perish pressures on the back burner to do the best work I can.

Narratives for communicating climate change

Last week I wrote about work by UC researchers on framing climate change, a chapter that focuses on how we can harness our understanding of human psychology — how we learn, think, and behave — to communicate science better. Here’s another paper (one that’s gotten very popular, very quickly) that considers human cognition for the efficacy of communicating about climate change.

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change ScienceThe authors of this paper (Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, & Terrie Klinger, all from the University of Washington) started with the insight from psychology that people understand and remember story-like (narrative) writing better than explanatory (expository) writing. They considered abstracts from 802 scientific papers about climate change, and looked for different markers of narrative structure:
1) description of setting (where/when the events took place)
2) narrative perspective (the presence of a narrator)
3) sensory language (appealing to the senses or emotions)
4) conjunctions (used often in narratives to connect narratives logically)
5) connectivity (phrases that create explicit links to something mentioned earlier in the text)
6) appeal (whether the text makes an appeal to the reader or a recommendation for specific action)

The authors crowdsourced this first part of their data analysis. This means that non-scientists who use an online job platform (crowdflower.com) were given the authors’ instructions for analyzing the abstracts. This way, each abstract was analyzed by 7 independent people, and involved human interpretation and discretion, which can likely provide a more accurate index of narrativity than any computerized methods can at the moment.

The authors considered how many times each paper in the study had been cited by others as a reflection of how much impact each paper had on subsequent science conducted. They found that 4 of their 6 narrative indicators (sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity, and appeal to reader) were related to how frequently articles were cited by others. In other words, papers higher in narrativity were cited more often than those that were more expository.

journal-pone-0167983-g001-2
Subset of Figure 1, showing that as articles increase in narrativity, their citations increase as well.

The more citations a paper receives, the more other researchers will see the work. It’s possible that higher quality work lends itself better to a narrative style, so papers high in narrativity will also be cited often. Since this study is correlational, we have no way of ruling out this possibility that the best science is conducive to narrative presentation, and it would be cited a lot regardless of its narrative style because it’s just good research. The causal arrow is not clear here, but it is clear that impactful research tends to take on a narrative structure. Even though narrative writing doesn’t necessarily lead to citations, imitating the style of papers that are cited often doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.

This work is not the first to suggest that narratives can be helpful for understanding climate change. FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that designs ways to communicate complex issues and tests their efficacy for cognitive and behavior changes, has a toolkit that uses (visual) narratives to communicate about climate change. (Also note that the toolkit is just the tip of the iceberg for the extensive work FrameWorks has done on communicating climate change.)

Together, the work by FrameWorks and the study of narrativity and citations present a pretty clear takeaway for climate scientists (and likely scientists in many fields): ease off the traditional academic expository style and lean into a more understandable and memorable narrative style.


For an interesting (and more critical) take on this paper, see this post by Randy Olson at scienceneedsstory.com)

TLDR Guide to Ch 5 of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3, ch4). Today I’ll cover the final chapter.


Chapter 5: Building the knowledge base for effective science communication

This chapter brings back a number of issues discussed in earlier chapters with a focus on how the science of science communication can continue to be more informative.

Scientific communications often have an underlying assumption that when communication is done well, the public’s understanding of and attitudes about societal issues will be affected. It seems like a reasonable assumption, but it has not been extensively tested, and there are likely many conditions under which the assumption is false. “Good” communication alone won’t suffice for many of science communicators’ goals.

Future steps for science communicators

The report calls for more partnerships between researchers and science communicators to put into practice the lessons revealed by research on science communication. These partnerships will also be important for furthering research on science communication and testing hypotheses about ideal communication practices.

Screen Shot 2016-12-19 at 12.51.00 PM.png

I had never considered the possibility that science communication could be irrelevant for the achieving end goals. I think science communicators generally believe that it’s important for their messages to be communicated, and in many cases this is probably true, but I think it is worth considering the relative importance of science communication in creating changes compared to all the other things that also matter.

Using a systems approach to guide research on science communication

In cognitive science, we’re often drawn to look at the cognition of a system. For example, we might not just look at neural activity in order to try to understand some cognitive process, but instead will consider the whole body, environment, and culture in which the cognitive act is situated. This report calls us to think about science communication similarly: every communicative effort is part of a larger system, encompassing the content being communicated, its format, the diverse organizations and individuals who make up the communicators and audiences, the channels of communication, and the political and social contexts that the communication takes place in. This kind of holistic perspective takes into account the system-wide complexity instead of focusing on isolated elements, since findings about elements in isolation may not hold in complex and realistic situations. Since research does often need to be specific to be productive, the report suggests that researchers who are focusing on a single level or element in the system should at least be “acutely aware” of the broader context.

8161518829_fb12e9a367_b
communicate by johnny goldstein, CC

More research

We need more research that will inform best practices for communicating science. Some of this research should come in the form of randomized controlled field experiments, which will involve comparison conditions (for example, strategy A was more successful than strategy B) that take place in identical groups (participants were randomly assigned so that people who received strategy A didn’t differ in any way from those who received strategy B except in the strategy they received).

The report also calls for more training for researchers at all career levels, both so that the science of science communication can continue to become more rigorous, and also so that all other scientists can improve the way they communicate about their own work.


Seriously, we can all get better. This report is long, but it has a lot of important points for science communicators, which I’ve tried to distill into this series of blog posts. For me, the report provides encouragement: there’s a lot we already know about ways to most effectively communicate science, and there’s a comprehensive agenda for continuing to improve.

CogSci 2016 Day 3 Personal Highlights

  • There is more to gesture than meets the eye: Visual attention to gesture’s referents cannot account for its facilitative effects during math instruction (Miriam Novack, Elizabeth Wakefield, Eliza Congdon, Steven Franconeri, Susan Goldin-Meadow): Earlier work has shown that gestures can help kids learn math concepts, but this work explores one possible explanation for why this is so: that gestures attract and focus visual attention. To test this, kids watched a video in which someone explained how to do a mathematical equivalence problem (a problem like 5 + 6 + 3 = __ + 3. For some kids, the explainer gestured by pointing to relevant parts of the problem as she explained; for others, she just explained (using the exact same speech as for the gesture-receiving kids). The researchers used eye tracking while the kids watched the videos and found that those who watched the video with gestures looked more to the problem (and less at the speaker) than who watched the video sans gesture. More importantly, those who watched the gesture video did better on a posttest than those who didn’t. The main caveat was that the kids’ eye patterns did not predict their posttest performance; in other words, looking more at the problem and less at the speaker while learning may have contributed to better understanding of the math principle, but not significantly; other mechanisms must also be underlying gesture’s effect on learning. 

    But in case you started to think that gestures are a magic learning bullet:

  • Effects of Gesture on Analogical Problem Solving: When the Hands Lead You Astray (Autumn Hostetter, Mareike Wieth, Keith Moreno, Jeffrey Washington): There’s a pretty famous problem for cognitive science tests studying people’s analogical abilities, referred to as Duncker’s radiation problem: A person has a tumor and needs radiation. A strong beam will be too strong and will kill healthy skin. A weak beam won’t be strong enough to kill the tumor. What to do? The reason this problem is used as a test of analogical reading is that participants are presented a different story – an army wants to attack a fortress (and the fortress is at the intersection of a bunch of roads), but there are mines placed on the roads leading up to it, so the whole army can’t pass down one road at a time. Yet if they only send a small portion of the army down a road, the attack will be too weak. The solve this by splitting up and all converging on the fortress at the same time. Now can you solve the radiation problem? Even though the solution is analogous (target the tumor with weak rays coming from different directions) people (college undergrads) usually still struggle. It’s a testament to how hard analogical reasoning is.
    But that’s just background leading to the current study, where the researchers asked: if people gesture while retelling the fortress story, will they have more success on the radiation problem? To test this, they had one group of participants that they explicitly told to gesture, one group that they told not to gesture, and a final group that they didn’t instruct at all regarding gestures. They found that the gesturers in fact did worse than non-gesturers, and after analyzing the things that people actually talked about in the different conditions, discovered that when people gestured, they tended to talk more about concrete details of the situation – for example, the roads and the fortress – and this focus on the perceptual features of the fortress story actually inhibited their ability to apply the analogical relations of that story to the radiation case.
    Taking this study into consideration with the previous one, it’s clear that gesture is not all good or all bad; there are lots of nuances of a situation that need to be taken into account and lots of open questions ripe for research.
  • tDCS to premotor cortex changes action verb understanding: Complementary effects of inhibitory and excitatory stimulation (Tom Gijssels, Daniel Casasanto): We know the premotor cortex is involved when we execute actions, and there’s quite a bit of debate about to what extent it’s involved in using language about actions. They used transcranial direct current stimulation – a method that provides a small electrical current to a targeted area of the brain – over the premotor cortex (PMC) to test for its involvement in processing action verbs (specifically, seeing a word or a non-word and indicating whether it’s a real English word). People who received PMC inhibitory stimulation (which decreases the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing) were more accurate for their responses about action verbs, while those who received PMC excitatory stimulation (increasing the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing). This at first seems paradoxical – inhibiting the motor area helps performance and exciting it hurts, but there are some potential explanations for this finding. One that seems intriguing to me is that since the PMC is also responsible for motor movements, inhibiting the area helped people suppress the inappropriate motor action (for example, actually grabbing if they read the verb grab), and as a consequence facilitated their performance on the word task; excitatory stimulation over the same area had the opposite effect. Again, this study makes it clear that something cool is going on in the parts of our brain responsible for motor actions when we encounter language about actions… but as always, more research is needed.

journey

  • Tacos for dinner. After three days of long, stimulating conference days, the veggie tacos at El Vez were so good that they make the conference highlight list.

For every cool project I heard about, there were undoubtedly many more that I didn’t get to see. Luckily, the proceedings are published online, giving us the printed version of all the work presented at the conference. Already looking forward to next year’s event in London!