Archive for the ‘Intro Psych Stuff’ Category


getting motivated for another semester…

August 26, 2012

As I was making my way up the hill today, I was thinking about motivation. What motivates me to spend a gorgeous Sunday afternoon planning psychology lab experiments? What motivated me to renovate my basement on my own this summer (and fall. and winter) given my own paltry building skills? How can I better motivate my students to be more active participants in their learning? I had already decided to address the topic of motivation earlier in the semester in my Introduction to Psychology classes this semester, because I think a better understanding of the drives behind what we do will allow the students to better situate later information about social influences, the brain, development, cognition, etc.

why am I doing this?

Anyhow, as I was piecing together resources on the topic for my students, I came across an article titled “Tough Track: How—and why—an average guy became an ultramarathoner”. I don’t think there is anything terribly profound in the article about motivation, but it did get me thinking about my own running and how some of the motivations I have “cultivated” in my running carry over into my more work-a-day life. As I have written other places here, I run for a number of reasons. Sometimes when I am tired, or it is dark and raining, or other activities consume my time, I consciously think about why I run. The satisfaction I gain from simply moving through the world at my own pace. The increased strength and fitness I feel (at least when I am not exhausted from running). How I have incorporated “runner” and all that it entails into my self-concept. Endorphins. When I find myself in a tough spot at work – I am “not-quite-as-interested-in-the-topic-at-hand” as I could be, I’m worried about the potential of rejection of a paper I am writing, or it just seems like so much work to get a line of research off the ground – I think about the motivations that get me out the door on a run. It helps me re-engage at the office and work through the things I have to do. I mention that I do this consciously – however, I do think there are many times that this “adoption” of motivation occurs outside of my awareness as well. The fact that I am motivated to run, and this motivation has been a consistent aspect of my life in the past decade, makes a difference for how I deal with initiating behavior in all situations. Of course, that idea opens up a whole new crop of questions and ideas that I can’t address right now because I need to get back to those lab preparations…


scarily funny science stuff…

August 24, 2012

I hope that the students in my Intro to Psychology sections learn enough about science that they can appreciate the frightening humor in this clip from last year…

Click here to pop over to the Daily Show site to watch…. Science – What Is It Up To?


another one bites the dust…

July 31, 2012

It seems that the past year has been a rough one for psychological science – several researchers have had their work called into question based on evidence suggesting that they had falsified data. This is a tricky issue. For science to work, the community of scientists has to trust that everyone is on the up-and-up. Honesty in reporting data is paramount. So, it is critical that individuals that are not living up to this standard are removed from the community. At the same time we are looking out for these nefarious researchers, we have to trust that everyone else is on being honest. So, there is obviously tension – I must trust, but I also must be skeptical…

The tricky part is how do we know? Well, we can feel a bit more confident because individuals like Uri Simonsohn are on the case. Here is an interview with him about how he detected fraudulent data in one high profile case this past year. This morning I saw that there was a retraction notice in the recent issue of Psychological Science, and following the story a bit found out that Simonsohn had identified another batch of suspect data. I found this situation particularly interesting because of the simplicity of his approach. Lawrence Sanna, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, had published a study purporting that the level of altruism an individual felt was related to his or her actual level of elevation – higher elevation = higher level of atruism. The method was interesting – it involved escalators and hot sauce, but that is a story for another post… Anyhow, Simonsohn noticed that although the means for the different conditions were very different, the standard deviations across the conditions were nearly identical. Simply put, different groups of individuals had been tested at different levels of elevation – the participants at higher elevations on average had much higher levels of altruism. The problem in the data was that although these means differed significantly, the range and distribution of responding within each group of participants was essentially identical. Simonsohn correctly noted that this is highly unlikely, so he located some other studies using similar methods and found that not only were the differences between groups far smaller, the variability within each group also differed more appropriately. Several other papers written by Sanna showed a similar lack of variability in the reported variability across the conditions, so Simonsohn contacted Sanna and some of his co-authors with his concerns during the fall of 2011. As of June 2012, Sanna has resigned from U of Michigan, retracted at least four papers, and now maintains his silence (under legal counsel).

All of this occurred because of some lowly, little standard deviations. By the way – you should use this as a prompt to review just what a standard deviation is and why your friendly research methods instructor would spend so much time making sure you understood that statistic…


required reading for research methods students…

March 13, 2012

Subtitle: The Challenge of Thinking Scientifically

A study is completed. It is published. It gets cited a whole lot. Obviously, it is a done deal – science has once again illuminated some dark corner of our world… Or maybe not. I came across a post by Dan Simons that was intended to focus on the relatively simple issue of why the replication of a particular experiment might fail or not. Click on the link – read the post. It is a well articulated explanation of how one might think about results from a replication – reasons it might confirm the original experiment, and reasons it might not (btw – the post responds to a recent squabble about a published replication failure – you can read about that particular brouhaha here). Understanding how you can interpret a replication is important.

Now, read the comments. The post is good, but the comments for this particular post provide a wonderful glimpse of how psychological scientists think about a range of issues:

I think I’ll just use the comment section from the post as the outline for my Research Methods class next semester. Or maybe have the students critically respond to it as a part of their final exam…


autism in context…

January 23, 2012

One of the first topics we cover in Research Methods is that science does not occur within a vacuum – and this is especially true for psychological science. Recently, there has been a flurry of news stories about how certain mental health disorders are diagnosed, with a lot of debate focused on the diagnostic criteria for autism. This is occurring now because a revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), THE reference for psychiatrists and mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders, has been underway for years. The DSM is currently in its fourth (although revised) edition, and the fifth edition promises to make some important changes. (An overview of the revision is available here.) The changes are intended to increase the reliability and validity of the diagnoses that are made – essentially, the goal is to avoid false positives (diagnosing someone with a disorder who is actually healthy) while not excluding individuals from a diagnosis who do have a legitimate need for clinical intervention. It seems as though this should be a fairly straight-forward, empirically grounded process (the ideal), but there are a lot of other pressures playing into it – you can read a good summary of some of those issues here: Redefining Autism For DSM-V. The diagnostic criteria for autism have been arguably “loose” in past editions of the DSM, reflecting a very healthy debate about exactly what autism is.

In recent years, these has been an increase in the diagnosis of autism (MSNBC has a series of stories related to the increase – always worthwhile to see how the popular press approaches a subject, and they don’t disappoint with the title “Autism: The Hidden Epidemic?”). This increase has been accompanied by a debate – is the increase due to an increased prevalence of the disorder or does it reflect that the diagnostic criteria are too broad, resulting in lots of false positives? Depending on how you answer that question, you will see the proposed revision to the DSM in a very different light. For those that see an increase in prevalence – the revision may exclude many people who would benefit from clinical intervention. For those that see an increase in false positives – the revision represents a better diagnostic tool that will increase the reliability and validity of the identification of individuals with autism.

I am not a clinical psychologist. I am not an expert in autism. I am however interested in this debate because (a) it is important that we get diagnoses of mental health disorders right and (b) it nicely illustrates how the science of autism diagnosis is contextualized. This revision will have very real impact on families – possibly how they view the behaviors of a child that does not play the way other children on the playground do or what access they have to clinical or education services to assist them in working with that child. This revision will have a very real impact on healthcare groups – facilities and organizations may see funding disappear if the number of individuals with autism shrinks because of tighter diagnostic guidelines. The revision will impact researchers, teachers, and many others. I point this out to my students because sometimes when we are working our way through topics like “construct validity” or “false positives” in class, it may all seem rather academic and they might not see the importance of what they are learning.


creativity… going it alone or with the herd?

January 18, 2012

So, this week begins a new semester, and with it a certain resolution to more frequently add to the information I share through this little portal. Hopefully, I can maintain that focus and make a this a useful stopping point for my students (and others) who have some interest in various matters of a psychological nature. This semester, I am teaching a seminar (“Creativity & Cognition”) and a section of Research Methods. This may flavor the topics I choose to pick up on for this blog.

Case in point – with impeccable timing, the New York Times ran an opinion piece this past week looking at creativity and collaboration (The Rise of the New Groupthink). Susan Cain argues that the shift towards an emphasis on collaborative work (as evidenced by brainstorming meetings, shared work spaces, etc.) in the classroom and corporate office has been counter-productive because it stymies the endeavors of people who feel more comfortable and productive working on their own. Her new book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” would seem to further develop this idea (although I haven’t read it and don’t see much of an opportunity to do so arising anytime soon). I just wanted to point out a few things in the opinion piece that caught my eye.

I think Cain’s closing idea is right on. In the second to last paragraph, Cain says, “… we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a nuanced approach to creativity and learning”. Creativity is complex – once you begin considering “why” and “how” it occurs, you realize that it involves the interaction of various components, none of which is sufficient alone to explain “why” or “how” creativity occurred. This means that there are no easy answers to either the “why” or the “how”, and most current theories of creativity reflect that idea. What I see as being the most complete theories of creativity engage with the notion of convergence in some way – the attributes and experiences of the individual interact with the current state of the domain that person is working within and the resulting ideas get picked up and transmitted by others if they are sufficiently novel and appropriate to the issues at hand. Cain’s comment in the closing reflects that complexity, but the main point of her article (that being forced into these group collaborations gets in the way of the creative individual) actually works against recognizing that complexity. She emphasizes the experience of the creative/introverted individual (e.g. Steve Wozniak of Apple), working alone, tirelessly endeavoring to create the breakthrough that will change things forever… (what in her last sentence, she appears to call “the real work”). But this ignores that fact that all of the hard work of the individual is for nothing if it is not situated properly within the domain (e.g. having the opportunity to start Apple with Steve Jobs who seemed to provide a vision for Wozniak’s tireless brilliance) and subsequently picked up by the others involved in developing home computers (from the computer “Homebrewers” she mentions to the consumers who provide a market for the yet to developed pcs). Her deference to the creative individual is reflected in the mention of Gregory Feist (who focuses on studying creativity as arising from a cluster of personality traits – a clear focus on the individual) at the start of her piece. More curious is her mention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same point – Csikzentmihalyi has proposed a “systems view” of creativity that takes the notion of convergence mentioned above to heart. In one chapter, Csikzentmihalyi (1999) states very clearly his dissatisfaction with a focus on the individual as of critical importance in the creative endeavor:

“What the present chapter seeks to accomplish, however, is to point out that creativity cannot be recognized except as it operates within a system of cultural rules, and it cannot bring forth anything new unless it can enlist the support of peers. If these conclusions are are accepted, then it follows that the occurrence of creativity is not simply a function of how many gifted individuals there are, but also how accessible the various symbolic systems are and how responsive the social system is to novel ideas.” (p. 333)

Csikzentmihalyi is proposing that we distort our understanding of creativity by putting too much emphasis on the role of the individual, something that Cain appears to be doing in her proposal. And because she identifies the “creative” individual as being of a certain type (introverted), she fails to recognize the potential interactions between the person and the situation that are truly critical in understanding creativity. It could be that bustling and rich environments keep introverts from their creative potential, but it may benefit others. With a quick search, I found several studies that found positive correlations between extroversion and creative potential (Borod, Grossman, & Eisenman, 1971; Khosravani & Guilani, 2008; King, Mackee Walker, & Broyles, 1996), and these other creative types might just flourish in that environment.

If classrooms and workplaces are becoming as chaotic and socially focused as Cain proposes, it may not be an ideal environment for some people to create within. However, it may be the right kind of environment for others, and moving back to everyone sitting in neat rows and individual offices is hardly going to be the solution. There is a lot of interesting and meaningful research being done to better understand creativity (and much of it is focused specifically on the classroom and workplace environment), and I think we are better able to determine how different environments affect different kinds of individuals and their ability to create than Cain’s opinion piece suggests.


a brief blog post about someone else’s blog post…

November 4, 2011

There is a blog titled “Research Digest: Blogging on brain and behaviour” that is affiliated with the British Psychological Society (but you already knew that based on the “funny” spelling of behavior in the title of the blog). Anyhow, they do a much better job than I at keeping up with interesting psychological findings and providing snappy, yet pithy, commentaries on the various topics they post about.

I wanted to point folks over to their page for two reasons. First, this has been an absolutely overwhelming semester in terms of time spent shaping the young minds of my students, so I have been severely hobbled in my efforts to make this a worthwhile stopover during your internet wanderings. Second, I saw they had this fun little collection of posts – comments from “famous” psychologists that expressed how psychology had impacted their lives (in less than 200 words). Reading through the various submissions is quick and fun. You get an insight on love from Robert Sternberg. Howard Gardner chimes in about creating an effective research team (hint – don’t look for mini-mes). Susan Fiske notes that a little status envy is ok as long as it is tempered with a sense of cooperation. There are quite a few of these vignettes, each providing a unique insight into the thoughts of a psychologist (even the one who said psychology was essentially useless in his day-to-day life).