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ScienceOnline Interviews: Melanie Tannenbaum, Social Psychologist

Last year, I crowd-funded my attendance to ScienceOnline2012, an un-conference for people communicating about– and doing– science on the internet. In exchange, I offered to interview one attendee for every $100 I raised. In the lead-up to ScienceOnline2013, I’ll be sharing those interviews. Based on feedback from Twitter, I decided to interview student attendees in the sciences.

My fourth interviewee, Melanie Tannenbaum, is working on her PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She tweets as @melanietbaum and blogs at Psy Society. You can learn more about her lab’s research here. Melanie gave me really excellent answers, and told me to feel free to edit them down. I couldn’t bear to, because she had such fantastic things to say! So, if this post is tl;dr, I urge you to take a question a day and come back until you’re done.

mbt_picture1) You’re a PhD student in psychology. Can you tell me a little about your path, and how you ended up here?

Sure! It’s not incredibly fascinating, though. I came straight through to grad school from undergrad; I always knew that I loved psychology, and as I gained research experience in college, I realized how much I love the research process in particular. Spending your workday asking really interesting questions about human nature and then figuring out the answers to them is a pretty sweet gig. I took a bit of a roundabout path getting to Social Psych in particular, though. I went through most of college as a Developmental Psychology major, I initially thought I’d pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology, and my undergrad honors thesis was in Educational Psychology, so I sort of bopped around for a bit. As for why I eventually settled on Social Psych…it’s no more complicated than the sheer fact that no matter what I studied or researched, I always found Social Psych to be the coolest, the most interesting, and the most fun to read & learn about. If you’re going to spend your whole life learning the minutiae of a field and working your bum off day in and day out to eventually contribute what will likely be a very tiny piece of new knowledge, you had better pick a field that you find REALLY, earth-shatteringly interesting. But now I can totally say that Social Psychology is hands-down the most awesome topic in the entire world. No bias or anything :)
2) What advice do you have for first-time attendees of ScienceOnline2013?

I can only enthusiastically repeat the best piece of advice that I myself received last year, which is that you should feel free to introduce yourself to EVERYONE. Recognize someone from a Twitter avatar or from the pages of the New York Times? Go up and say hello! I’m as “junior” in my career as it gets, so I know how easy it is to feel intimidated, especially when you see some of your Writing or Science Idols. But everyone in this community really is so supportive and welcoming, and everyone embraces the culture of Open Access, both when it comes to research and when it comes to forging connections with other attendees. Trust me on this one. You really can’t have a bad experience; it’s basically impossible.

Also, don’t feel weird having Twitter open on a screen right in front of you at all times. At dinner, during talks, as soon as you get up in the morning… you’ll get used to that happening real fast.

3) One of your research areas is in persuasion and behavior change. As a scientist who researches global environmental change, I’m very interested in how we get people to change their perceptions and actions in order to protect the world’s biota and prevent climate change. What does your research suggest are the best (and worst) ways to go about this?

I’ve actually been spending the past few years working on a meta-analysis of research on fear appeals (aka “scare tactics.”) They get used in persuasion all of the time, but there’s still a surprising amount of controversy over whether or not they work, when they work best, when they backfire, etc. Without giving too much away (since it’s still in the submission process), scaring people about environmental change should actually get them to change their behavior…but the message will work better if it includes an efficacy message (e.g. telling someone what they can do to prevent the danger from happening, and assuring them that this response works/they can successfully enact it, rather than merely scaring them). Fear also tends to work better for one-time-only behaviors, as opposed to behaviors that you have to enact over a longer period of time…so, it might not be an ideal strategy for getting someone to change their daily lifestyle, but it might work well for convincing someone to buy energy-saving lightbulbs while they’re physically at the store.

Finally, our analyses suggest that fear might actually work better in people who are not as personally invested in the topic; those who are highly involved or who derive self-esteem from the target behavior that you’re trying to change are more likely to react negatively and reject the message. So, for example, a frightening message about the perils of climate change might be particularly unsuccessful (or even dangerous) in people who hold strong political opinions or people who drive “gas-guzzlers.” For these populations, a different tactic would probably be better; some suggest more positive-framed messages rather than fear, like what could be gained by positively changing behavior. Fear might be alright, on the other hand, for people who may not hold strong opinions or may not feel particularly strongly about the negative behaviors that they engage in, but simply don’t know enough about climate change to have formed an opinion or adopted positive behaviors. With that sort of a population, fear would actually probably work pretty well.

As for other people’s research that I find cool, some of my favorite persuasion research looks at the surprising power of social norms. As it turns out, we’re incredibly susceptible to descriptive norms. Simply saying what *other people* do can exert a really strong influence on our own behavior. For example, one famous study by Cialdini (the god of persuasion research!) manipulated the signs in a forest where people had been taking too much wood, which was causing damage to the natural environment. The sign either said that the majority of people *don’t* take wood with them (trying to instill a descriptive norm saying that most people don’t do the negative thing), or that the majority of people *do* take wood with them and that this is really bad (trying to instill a more prescriptive-style norm saying that most people do the negative thing, but you really shouldn’t). Even though a lot of people who work in advertising or communications write messages like the latter, thinking that this tactic will guilt people into being one of the “good ones,” it actually backfires — no matter what people thought others did, they were more likely to act the same way, even if that meant taking the wood from the forest.

The first message was the one that worked the best; if people thought that most others did *not* take wood with them, they didn’t take it either, in an attempt to fit in with the norm. Noah Goldstein did something similar with towel reuse in hotel rooms; simply telling people that the majority of other people who stay in that room have reused their towels got significantly more people to choose to reuse theirs. Descriptive norms are incredibly powerful — if you can just get people to believe that others tend to act in positive ways when it comes to environmental behavior, you can usually get them to shift their own actions in that direction as well. Just don’t make the mistake of setting the wrong kind of descriptive norm!!

4) One of the things that I’m interested in is helping members of the public to learn what academics themselves are like. What does a typical day look like for you, both in terms of work and play?

Wake up around 7:00 AM, catch the 8:00 bus into the office. From 8:30-11 or so I’ll usually knock out a bunch of smaller tasks that still have to get done and can end up taking a surprisingly long amount of time as they add up. Stuff like…respond to e-mails from students, write/photocopy quizzes for my class, review & finalize the lecture slides for my class, post the slides on Compass, grade quizzes, organize papers, clean my desk…stuff like that. As it gets a bit later in that time block, I’ll transition into more research-y work…like reading articles (for journal club, for class, or for my own research interests), designing/programming new studies, or running some data analyses. I don’t write well in the AM, so I sort of try to do everything but that (the one exception being blog posts, which are actually easier for me to write in the AM, for whatever reason).

Depending on the day, 11-4ish is usually a lot of class or meetings, with some small 1/2-hour or 1-hour breaks in there that my friends and I will spend in the office, either squeezing work in or chatting (there are 6 of us who share 1 office, including my boyfriend and a couple of my closest friends, so there’s never a shortage of people to talk to if we really want to procrastinate or grab coffee). I teach Tuesday/Thursday, so on those days I teach 2 sections of Intro Social Psych from 12:30-3:30. I attend 3 different lab meetings, which are about 1-1.5 hours each on Wednesdays and Fridays. They can differ a lot based on whose lab it is, but generally it’s all of the “lab members” sitting around brainstorming ideas, running studies by each other, presenting results to each other, etc. We have a department colloquium on Mondays for 1.5 hours, where someone (either from UIUC or another school) comes in to give us a talk on their research every week. I also attend 2 journal clubs — one for Personality psych, one for Social psych — which is basically like a book club for academics. Everyone reads the same article (usually picked by a different group member each week), and then we sit around with coffee and snacks to critique it, praise it, argue about it, what have you. So that block of time is basically either teaching, lab meetings, or journal clubs, with any spare hours in there spent in the office working on research (or gossiping with my officemates….)

After that, I take a little mind break. I’ll head to the gym or the yoga studio for an hour or two, either to work out or teach a fitness class (I’m a newly certified group fitness instructor!), then head home to relax for a bit. But after dinner I still have to squeeze a little more work in…evenings are usually when I write best, and I actually need to adjust this schedule I’m telling you about right now because I haven’t been writing nearly enough lately. But I’ll usually grab a couple of hours of writing at night, anywhere from 1-3 hours (depending on how beat I am or how much of an uptick in energy I get after dinner/relaxing for a bit). Then, for the rest of the night after that, it’s just TV and vegging out with my boyfriend & cats (or with my friends, especially if it’s Thursday Girls Night! Or a weekend…)
5) What’s the twitter-version of your PhD research?

2 areas of interest. 1) Scare tactics: Do they work? 2) Social class: How does it affect political attitudes/behavior/perceptions of fairness?

(Oh no, I’m 2 characters too long!)
6) What’s one stereotype of academics or scientists that you’d like to correct?

Probably the stereotype that we’re all ridiculously good looking and have rockin’ social lives.
7) There has been a lot of research on the emotional health of graduate students and faculty, particularly related to depression and stress. As a psychology graduate student, I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating the process of becoming an academic and maintaining a good work-life balance, dealing with stress, or any other thoughts you might have about making it through this process in one piece!

I actually developed a severe problem with anxiety right before my 3rd year of graduate school, when I was getting ready to take my qualifying exams. I began having trouble breathing, and very soon I felt throughout the day like I couldn’t “finish a breath” — I’d breathe in and feel like I couldn’t really fill my lungs all the way, if that makes sense. I kept seeing doctors about it, but I’m a runner and I work out every day so they were a little stumped, especially when all of my physical tests came back saying that my heart & lungs were not only normal, they were exceptionally healthy. It was a really bizarre time. It took a while to realize it was an anxiety disorder. I always knew that somatization was a very real and painful experience, but until I experienced it myself, I didn’t realize just how *frustrating* it is to KNOW that the cause of your problem is mental, to try incredibly hard to “get over it,” and still feel like there’s nothing you can do.

The quals themselves were fine (I passed with no problem), but the breathing problems stuck around for a while. I actually only recently began breathing normally again, after a lot of effort and treatment on my part — and after over a year of struggling to breathe, a particularly horrible symptom for someone whose main form of stress relief happens to be exercise. That experience informed how I think about a lot this stuff. I had to learn how to place my mental health and well-being very high on a list of priorities that is very, very long. I think that the qualifying exams sparked my anxiety issues, but I think they persisted because of many more things. Adjusting to grad school (and academia in general) is difficult because you have to learn how to cope with the feeling that there is always more you could be doing, always something that you are behind on, and always something that you’ve managed to fail at. It’s a really tough transition, especially for a population of people who have probably been told their entire lives that they’re brilliant, special snowflakes.

Every day it is a challenge for me to send a draft to my advisor that I know could be more perfectly written, to say that the “analyses are done” and the paper is ready to be finalized when there are endless more regressions that could be run or different models that could be tested. It’s an exercise in learning how to decide when you’ve done something “good enough,” and learning how to realize that you’re never going to truly feel like anything you’ve done is ever finished. I think that the hardest thing anyone learns in grad school is not how to write, not how to do research, and not how to conduct analyses; it’s how to be okay with the constant knowledge that you could have done more, and how to know when to say that you’ve done enough, so your work doesn’t sit unfinished on the table for 5 years waiting for that day when you’ll eventually feel like there’s nothing left that it needs.

So, it’s hard. But imposing boundaries can help. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, “I will only spend 1 hour editing this introduction. After that, it’s done.” It’s really simple, but it really does help. And like I said earlier, in my free(ish) time I blog and I teach group fitness classes. Even when I’m not teaching group fitness, I work out every day for 1-2 hours. Would I get more done if I spent every second that I now spend blogging or exercising doing research instead? Sure — that’s how time works. But would I *actually* be more productive if I didn’t have exercise in my life as my stress release, if I didn’t have a healthy body or the quality of sleep that I get at night from working out regularly, if I didn’t have something to take my mind off of work for an hour so that I can have an uptick in energy to write a little more later that night? Would I be able to write as well and as quickly as I do if I didn’t have so much practice writing about research for a general audience on my blog? I’m not so sure.

Long story short, it can be really difficult. But people have to have that balance. The people I know who dropped out of grad school, it didn’t happen because they were going out every night partying and spending too little time focused on research. It happened because they didn’t have friends that they felt particularly close with, they didn’t feel like they belonged in their communities, their lives felt too one-dimensional, and they didn’t have a strong social support system. Yes, if you were to take every second that someone spends on anything not related to research and imagine that they spent those seconds working, you can imagine someone getting a lot more done. But that doesn’t do anyone any good if that person is driven to drop out of academia entirely.

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Categories: Academia Commentary Grad School

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Jacquelyn Gill

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