Professor, Heal thyself! On unprofessionalism and lack of empathy in (complaints about) student emails

A recent op-ed in the Guardian, entitled “I’m not LMAO at ridiculous student emails” lodges a familiar complaint: students don’t know how to communicate with professors in a professional manner, flaunting reasonable social codes and ignoring professors busy lives outside the classroom. Such ignorance and lack of decorum will surely hinder these students future efforts in the workplace.

The bitter irony is that in nearly all of these pieces (and there are many) the professor  sorely lacks the very qualities they bemoan as deficient in their students.

Lack of professionalism: Here I am guided by Siva Vaidhyanathan’s idea that “the classroom is a sacred space.” If students can’t feel safe enough to express what is wrong or incomplete about their thinking, their learning experience will be needlessly limited and deficient.  If a professor never gets to see what students know, don’t know, and what they know which isn’t so, then the professor is merely sending a golden record out into the great unknown, hoping students are learning, but never knowing for sure. Even if we regard our job as conveying knowledge, we need to respect the inevitable ignorant failures of our students and not take student work in a semi-private, and yes, sacred, space, whether in the classroom, on a test or paper, and mock it in a public forum. Mocking student work or communication to a professor in a public forum is unprofessional and reflects poorly on how a professor regards the learning process and their role in it. Is it good practice to anonymize student writing and then mock it in front of the class? Of course not. Why is it then ok to do the same in front of a much larger audience of a national newspaper? Do you want to improve student writing? Teach them how to write a better sentence, don’t chuckle at their ignorance on twitter. Do you want to improve student’s emails? Teach them how to write a better one. Don’t publish their private communication to you in the newspaper, anonymous or not. Just a year ago, Jesse Stommel’s response to the Chronicle Vitae’s Dear Student series makes many similar points, but also emphasizes the necessity of empathy. For Stommel and many others, empathy is a critical part of the profession of teaching.

Lack of empathy: While professors bemoan that students don’t seem to understand that professors are people too (people who hate emojis, aren’t up at 2 am, and don’t respond to emails on weekends). Here is the Guardian writer:

The ultimate email, now legendary in my office, was from a postgraduate student on the day of her viva. We’d spent weeks trying to coordinate the meeting, getting the right people from different campuses to the same place at the same time. We managed to schedule half an hour, and impressed upon the student how important it was that we started promptly at noon. We waited, waited some more, and after a full 15 minutes an email arrived: “Running late. Put a potato in the oven for lunch and it isn’t ready yet.”

Disrespect is one thing, but when someone prioritises a baked potato over you, it feels like contempt.

According to Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I can assure you, this potato is not just a potato. The professor who complains that students don’t understand basic social considerations doesn’t seem to know the first thing about the psychology of being a student. A postgraduate student on the day of her viva is a nervous wreck. I assume like in the US, this is an in-person oral exam with a committee of impressive faculty with the express purpose of judging one’s work and merits as a scholar. A postgraduate student who has been “impressed upon” the importance of a meeting is not prioritising a baked potato. That student is a mess. A student who has worked hard for years in a field, gaining expertise, passing exams, demonstrating readiness in many ways (you didn’t let that student schedule a viva without helping prepare her, did you?) was so nervous she couldn’t get to the ultimate moment on time. You could have taken that student aside and said, “You’ve worked so hard, it’s going to be fine, we’re on your side. Anxiety is natural, but you’ve practiced and people get through this.” But no, you made that embarrassing call for help “legendary in your office,” and now decided that the student deserved wider embarrassment. That, to me, looks more like contempt than wasting 15 minutes of you and your colleagues time and following it up with a obviously meager excuse.

Lack of understanding of the changing nature of communication: When I entered college in 1994 the web was young. There was no Facebook (not even Friendster yet), no Google,  and one of the most popular websites, Yahoo, looked like this., circa December 1996

Most people did not have cell phones, so there was no texting. Since then, Facebook went from nothing, to something only Ivy League college students had access to, to something the world uses for social and professional networking and communication.  I’ve seen professional collaborations begin on Twitter. When I talk with one of my twin boys, who are 12, he tells me that he follows CNN on Snapchat. Yet we professors too often think that the social conventions of professional communication change as slowly as we do. So a professor who thinks it should be obvious to a student to not to use emojis? Probably doesn’t understand that before college, students are likely to have at least one teacher who has used emojis in a communication with them. A professor who assumes it is ridiculous that a student writes an email as if texting? Probably doesn’t realize that there are now systems (like Remind, or Celly) that intentionally blur that distinction, so that a teacher can send an email which appears to students as a text, or students can text which gets routed to a teacher’s email. Young students have even experienced change in communication rules, when Grandma starts texting, or Dad gets on instagram. Students don’t recognize that line not just because they are ignorant, but sometimes because they have a more varied experience than most professors. So when a student defaults to informality, it may be because keeping the different communications preferences of every adult in their lives is nearly impossible, and the world has just as often adjusted to their preferences as the other way around (as has been true for every generation time immemorial).

Further, when professors see shorthand communication as inherently informal and disrespectful, they are ignoring that such shorthand is a common and logical adaptation of language. It was common in Morse code to use shorthand such as: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” Taking student communication seriously as a complex adaptation rather than ignorant carelessness might be a good first step in helping them learn to communicate with us. The linguist John McWhorter puts it well in his TED Talk on why text language is no cause for alarm:

Let’s think about it. LOL is being used in a very particular way. It’s a marker of empathy. It’s a marker of accommodation. We linguists call things like that pragmatic particles. Any spoken language that’s used by real people has them. 

The first step towards teaching students must be by understanding and respect what they bring to the learning process, whether it is vocabulary or background knowledge, cultural approaches or misconceptions. Taking student communication seriously is a great first step.

So what would a compassionate, professional and understanding approach to fixing the “student email problem?” look like? There are some good resources out there in the deep scold sea, but here are the basic outlines of mine:

It would begin early in the semester with a short: “This is how you can communicate with me and what you can expect from me.” Along with recognizing that some of our communication rules might be idiosyncratic, it might be useful to students to identify some rules of thumb for communicating with all professors. For example I tell my students that a generally safe, respectful and gender-neutral salutation is “Dear Professor <spellsmynameright>,”  and that “hey” is never appropriate for a first email to a professor. I’m a psychologist, so I also use this as an excuse to highlight James Pennebaker’s fascinating work on psycholinguistics of pronouns.

Second, such a lesson is sadly not a universally effective vaccine against future cases of the HeySorryLOLs. Students will still send inappropriate emails, often informally joking about a failure of theirs, missing class, assignments, etc. When this happens, I see two choices: One, send back an email noting that while you are sympathetic to the students unfortunate and perhaps misspelled experiences, this is not the appropriate way to communicate with professors, and that attendance in class is important for their learning. I tend to think modeling appropriate communication while valuing and prioritizing their learning is the best course here.

A second option would be to ask the student to come meet in person. I tend to think that the more ridiculous the email, the more important it is to choose this option. Ms. Potato didn’t need mockery, she needed a mentor to both reassure her on her general competence and preparedness as well as note (in a firm and concerned way) that such tardiness and excuses might have lasting consequences to her credibility in future circumstances.

I agree with the closing of the Guardian op-ed arguing that universities should teach students to write better emails when they don’t know how. But along the way we should recognize that just as small potatoes make poor excuses, public mockery makes poor pedagogy.

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Teaching #TheDress : Resources for Teachers on the Psychology behind the Dress

Here is the original post, 27 million views and counting.

Here is Virginia Hughes with an explanation based in part on my contributions.

Here are some general resources on perception and illusions

  • Michael Bach has a great website with many illusions, demonstrations and explanations.
  • I keep a bunch of illusion and perception bookmarks that you can browse on (bookmarking for introverts, perfect for me).
  • A recent issue of the excellent new science magazine, Nautilus, was devoted to illusions. Here is a nice exploration of many ambiguous figures from that issue by Tom Vanderbilt.

Here are some resources for learning more about the perception behind the dress

  • A very good explanation from Steven Pinker, seems to be targeted at his Introductory Psychology class at Harvard.
  • Pascal Wallisch with a more in-depth explanation of visual ambiguity and how it relates to your perception of this dress.
  • Stephen Macknik is a perceptual psychologist, whose work includes a lot of great studies on illusions, and popularizing illusions and what they tell us about our eyes and minds. He thinks that the differences in dress perception are mostly optical and photographic, and the differences between people are actually rather mundane (scientifically). I’m not sure I agree, but I do find it an interesting perspective, in that what drove the millions of people crazy about this dress was not that their perception was different than reality, but that their perception was different than the person sitting right next to them. Paul Ford points this putting people on two teams as one of the three vital ingredients of the virality of the dress is putting people on two teams (the other two are magic and science).
  • An explanation and perspective from a colorist (artist who mostly colors comics) Nathan Fairbarn. Some really great visual explanations here (variations in lighting, variations in dress images), as you would expect from an artist. But also really well done from a perceptual science point of view.

Broader implications (and why this isn’t just about a dress)

  • For teachers of social studies or other social sciences, Sydette Harry has a great explanation of why this isn’t just a trivial illusion, but a great exploration of how we see the world differently that has consequences for our discussions of big social issues when we have to agree on a reality. As she says

The question is really “how do we create reality in collaboration with the people around us?” — not “what color is the dress?” The latter has a simple answer: It’s blue. But every now and again, it’s nice to talk about serious questions through a topic that’s anything but.

  • Pascal Wallisch also has an excellent follow-up post, titled “Why DressGate matters” laying out why it is not trivial and has broader implications for human perception and cognition. I agree, this is not just a cool instance of a known phenomena (which is sort of is) it is interesting from a scientific perspective as well.

On individual differences in perception, not just the illusion itself:

  • Large facebook study on what people mention in their posts about the dress. If someone mentioned #blueandblack but not #goldandwhite, the facebook data team assumed which way they saw it, then crunched a bunch of other numbers to try to find relationships between gender, age, time and day and device type.
  • Vaughan Bell was (rightfully) dissatisfied that all the “science of the dress” posts only explain how people perceive color and brightness in general and could see different things in this image, not why a given person would perceive it in the way that they do.

Ok, that’s a start. Please leave your own links in the comments. I will keep updating this throughout today.

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The way you saw that dress, what a mess, I confess: A cognitive psychologist sees a dress

The internet was finally broken yesterday, not by a West or a Kardashian, nor by Beliebers, but rather by disbelievers. #TheDress, in which some people see blue/black, some people see white/gold, some people see blue/gold, and some people, no … seriously? It’s blue and black. How could you? Are your eyes working ok? The disbelief is how different humans could see the same thing something as straightforward as a picture of a dress in such remarkably different ways. I’m pretty happy to have played a small role.

The journalists of the internet (and everyone else) frantically searched for experts who could tell them why this was (i.e.: why they were right about the dress, and why their spouse was horribly horribly wrong).  I think this is a great lens to see some important disconnects between science and the public. But first I’ll explain a bit of what scientists know about the dress.

Perception is a way more complex process than most people realize. Whenever you see the color of anything, you have to judge the color of the surface as well as the color of the light. We walk around mostly aware of the colors of surfaces, but in fact, our eyes are always deciding where the illumination is coming from, as well as what color and how bright it is. Our brains do this effortlessly, as in the famous Adelson checkershadow illusion below:

See here for how to check that those two squares are the same color gray.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do we decide what color is the illumination and what color is the surface, but we also have to decide what color is the medium between the surface and our eyes. Look at this chess piece illusion from Anderson and Winnower (2005), also referred to in this article by Alan Gilchrist.*

Both sets of chess pieces are the same, because we see white pieces under black clouds in the top figure, but black figures under white clouds in the bottom figure. Not only are we deciding what kind of light hits the pieces, and how reflective the pieces themselves are, but we are also deciding what that light does between the chess pieces and our eyes. In other words, from one set of color values (what gets into our eyes) we are reconstructing a rich set of layers of light, surfaces and media.

So that tells us how we perceive color in general, but it doesn’t answer the particular question in front of us. Why do some people see the dress one way and others another way? Believe it or not, most perceptual scientists I’ve seen reacting mostly shrug. We know contrast can matter, we know it matters what you saw before, we know the angle of your screen matters, we know where you look first can matter. But why do you see this particular dress this way and other people see it differently? For that, many of us are often fine to chalk it up to some element of randomness. Some people see white/gold some people see blue black and some people flip. We are happy to do this because this image, like many similar illusions, sits on a fine edge between two perceptual interpretations. We perceptual psychologists are perfectly fine with this, because we accept the idea that the process of perception results in likely interpretations, not in a perfect mirror of reality. For people who know that perception is often a process of judgment and interpretation, it is not surprising when people see differently. For those who think they see reality, the idea that there are two realities is pretty mind-blowing. But for vision scientists, that’s old news. In fact, the point is not that there are two realities, or even that there is one (the dress is blue and black under most illuminations) but there are two interpretations of the same reality, which supports each of those interpretations.

So, there is a mismatch between scientists who are happy to try to explain the general case (how do we judge the relative colors and brightness of surfaces under different illumination) but shrug at the particulars and many fascinated dress viewers who shrug at the general (luminosity? isn’t that a brain training site?) but want to know why they see it the way that they do but their friend doesn’t (he has blue eyes maybe?)  But there is also a mismatch between scientists and the public (and even between scientists of different fields) on what constitutes an explanation.

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the physics of light or biology of the eye or brain yet. To me, the correct way of explaining our perception of this dress need not refer to the wavelengths of light, or our different cones, or color opponent processes in the retina or color processing in the visual cortex, but to the features of this image and how our visual system as a whole interprets it. You can explain many illusions without reference to particular neurons. Indeed, many other illusions, even the Hermann grid, might seem to be simple consequences of how our neurons are organized, instead turn out to be too complex to explain with neurons, leaving us just saying “we see it this way in this situation and this other way in this other situation.” Yes, my thinking is informed by visual neuroscience, but I know enough to know that we don’t have a neuroscientific understanding of these kinds of illusions, we have a much better psychological explanation.

I know I shouldn’t be, but the ubiquity of neuroscientific terms despite the paucity of neuroscientific explanations is why I am a bit grumpy when I read that “this is all about our brains.” Of course it is: everything is made of atoms too, but that doesn’t make me turn to a physicist to explain why cake is delicious.  That our brains help us see doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the mechanism of this kind of illusion. Neuroscience doesn’t predict that if you focus in a different part of the scene, or adjust the contrast that might flip your perception of the dress. Perceptual psychology does. Alan Gilchrist was trained as a psychologist. Edward Adelson was trained as a psychologist. Bart Anderson, the lead author on that chess piece illusion paper, is also a psychologist, whose expertise on perceptual processes helps him explore illusions in human perception, but also consulting on perception and illusions in other animals, such as in the case of the fascinating architectural craftsmanship of bowerbirds.

Why do I care? Why can’t I just let the brainy goodness wash over me and bathe in its credibility-inducing glow? Because high expectations of neuroscience and low expectations of psychology have real world consequences. When people like Tom Coburn wants to get rid of social and behavioral science at the National Science Foundation, he wants to to get rid of psychology but keep neuroscience. Ultimately, this will not just undermine our understanding of dresses, but of many other situations where psychology is a better guide than neuroscience, like eyewitness testimony, or prejudice or health behavior. So, next time you are interested in a mental or perceptual phenomenon, ask a cognitive psychologist (and don’t be afraid to label them as such). Our brains will thank you.


*Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the chesspiece illusion to Gilchrist. Check out Bart Anderson’s webpage for many more great demos and illusions.

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Four thoughts about Student Evaluations (occasioned by sexism in

This post is occasioned by Ben Schmidt’s wonderful tool for exploring gender differences on words used in student evaluations on RateMyProfessor.

1. RateMyProfessor is a huge, but awful data set. Why awful? First, I’d bet that well under 1% of the students who take a course rate the professor on RateMyProfessor. For example, I went to graduate school in the department of psychology at University of Virginia. Many of the professors there have taught many many students in their careers.  I would guess that 90% of the department has taught at least 1000 students, with many in the several thousands. Even professors who have only been there for 5 years are likely to have taught large General Psychology classes of 200 or so, in addition to smaller seminars. The most rated professor has 90 ratings, with most having fewer than 50. My adviser, a dedicated and decorated professor, with numerous teaching awards, had 33 ratings. Second, those students that go on RateMyProfessor are not a random sample, but will tend to include more students who are upset about having their expectations dashed, or students who really loved the class. I’m sure there are a few students out there who are dedicated and fill out RateMyProfessor for all their professors, but I’d still imagine the sample of student evaluations on this site are horribly biased. Third, this isn’t all colleges, but a sample, likely weighted by which schools are heavy users of RateMyProfessors. Ben has a graph of the top 50 schools here.

2. Even given that caveat, I think it is still really interesting to explore, and to note the differences (and similarities) among disciplines, not just across genders. For example, look at “good” where the gap between male and female occurs in every discipline by about the same amount. But then look at “caring” where different fields are different. Health sciences, math and chemistry have more females noted as caring, so does philosophy. But look at political science and music. Huh. You can also see huge across the board differences with “brilliant.” Another interesting one where there is a near constant difference across all fields: “we.”

3. Words aren’t always what they seem. The word “genius” has a huge gender difference, highlighted in this New York Times piece. While the implication that men are perceived as smarter is hard to miss (and a common finding of this kind of research, from other areas of ratings as well), it makes me think of the specific circumstances of student evaluations. I tend to think of mentions of “genius” or the intelligence of a professor as negative indicators of teaching quality. “He understands many things I do not understand” is all well and good when you are hiring somebody, but not when that person is supposed to be teaching you.  A student should be amazed by what they came to know (how much I learned) not how much a teacher already knew. Yes, it is possible that a student is amazed by the blinding intelligence of a teacher, and also amazed by how much they were taught, but I’d argue more often than not a student remarks upon the genius of their professor when the professor has demonstrated their own intelligence rather than make the student confident in their own ability to learn.

4. Student evaluations are mostly measures of student feelings, not of student learning. I’d argue that these are sometimes correlated, but not nearly as closely as we might like to think. RateMyProfessor leans in to this, by asking for three ratings: Helpfulness, Clarity and Easiness. While these are good indicators of student feelings, they can run counter to student learning. Both easiness and clarity can indicate that a course felt smooth, with little cognitive or emotional struggle. Some students value challenge and struggle, and recognize that they are necessary steps on the path to learning, but others do not, and if they don’t feel a resolution to their discomfort during the class, they will vent on the evaluations.

5. The big data approach is worthwhile and interesting, but so is the small data. I’d urge higher ed journalists to take some time to read a hundred or so random comments on Many reflect more on the student than on the professor. Some kinds of comments are unfortunately quite common:

Hard if you do not read textbook

have to read the book thoroughly in order to get a decent grade

No attendance policy, which is helpful

Don’t sleep in class. He hates that.

But every now and then you can see that a student was challenged, but felt adequately supported and learned a lot. From my reading of RateMyProfessors (and of my own evaluations) this is not as common as most observers of this kind of data acknowledge.


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Conference Blogging from the American Psychological Convention

Hello loyal readers,

Today and tomorrow I will be conference blogging (and livetweeting) from the American Psychological Association Annual Convention.

Please tune in over there, here is the blog, and my first post on the diversity of psychology.

More to follow, stay tuned.



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5 truths about character and poverty that David Brooks has too much self-control to grasp

My David Brooks posts tend to be blockbusters (tens of hundreds of viewers!) so I am leaning in and going full listicle for this rant about his latest column, which in Brooksian fashion puts a modern social scientific sheen on old conservative ideas of blaming poor people for laziness lack of character and recommending solutions to social problems through education , rather than “addressing the material deprivation of the poor.” He claims to be inspired by this article by Richard Reeves, of the Brookings Institution, but I have a suspicion that David Brooks may have been mostly inspired by David Brooks.

1) Asking people why they behaved a certain way (and asking other people why they didn’t) is a naive approach to social science. Richard Reeves cites the findings of a panel convened to explain the August 2011 London riots.

Nonetheless, at Clegg’s insistence a Riots Communities and Victims Panel was established. The members gathered evidence, visited affected neighborhoods, and then offered advice to the government. The panel’s conclusion was that the decisive factor behind the riots was not lack of money or even morality, but lack of character.

The panel spoke not only to young people who had taken part in the disturbances, but also, crucially, to hundreds who could have but did not. “In asking what it was that made young people make the right choice in the heat of the moment, the Panel heard of the importance of character,” the nonpartisan group concluded. “A number of attributes together form character, including self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks. Young people who develop character will be best placed to make the most of their lives.” And, of course, will be less likely to riot, loot, and burn. Character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it is missing.

Taking people’s own word about the reasons for their behavior as the best evidence for the causal power of these explanations ignores decades the entire history of social psychology. I guess I can understand it from Reeves, who seems to be an accomplished public intellectual who mostly adopts a lens of political philosophy rather than empirical work in psychology, sociology and political science.  But ignoring our tendency to make up (incorrect) stories about the causes of our behavior is downright odd coming from someone like Brooks who writes regularly extolling the virtues of social psychology.

2) The marshmallow test does not mean that self control trumps everything else, or even that self-control is the only thing measured in that situation. Brooks claims that “Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” However, new results suggest that how reliable the child sees the reward also determines how quickly they eat the marshmallow. In other words, these children may be making a rational decision. A bird marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush promises of an unreliable stranger. The greater SAT scores that our special little gratification delayers (coochie coochie goo! aren’t you my little gratification delayer! yes you are!) may not be due to greater cultivated character, but environmental effects that of course include parents, but also may extend beyond.

3) The relationship between academic achievement and financial success that Brooks and neoliberals treat as a totem is a feature of our economic system at this moment in time not a natural law. As an college professor, I am of course an advocate of the transformative power of education. I am totally in the pro-knowledge camp. School … good. But even as I can wax poetic on the power of education, I am wary of arguments that economic injustice in our society exists because those on the lower rungs of the ladder haven’t figured out how to educate themselves up.  I love doctors and lawyers and scientists (some of my best friends…) but it is one thing to tell one student to apply her interest in math and science and escape her humble circumstances by becoming an engineer, and an entirely different thing to tell a generation that they can all escape poverty by doing the exact same thing.

What happens when everyone goes to college? What happens to 64,000 people who have persevered through college and graduate school to gain a PhD:

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

 When Brooks writes:

if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.

is he imagining that if everyone who invested with Bernie Madoff got their water turned off in Detroit were more prudent, we would have less poverty? Is he imagining that if only the predatory contract sellers evicted residents of 1960s Chicago slums were more conscientious, our cities would not suffer from urban decay? If only the smartest guys in the room black college graduates could exercise more resilience, then they would enjoy the “permanent benefits” of a society that had actual economic mobility?

4) Alienation and distrust are not character flaws of damaged people, but symptoms of a society that encourages such emotions.

Brooks closes with

But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.

This is a strong causal claim (alienation and mistrust are what retard mobility and ruin dreams) with little basis in fact. You know what retards mobility? Racist hiring practices. You know what ruins dreams?  Structural discrimination. Oh, also, shooting people for wearing a hoodie. Choking people to death for selling illegal cigarettes. How’s that for “exemplars?” Often when I am baited into finishing a Brooks column, I find myself re-reading great antidotes like Tressie McMillan Cottom.

5) In America, you can’t talk about a culture of poverty without acknowledging the past and current impact of policies built around white supremacy. Reeves ends his piece with: The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people. Perhaps such an ending was out of the question for Brooks, but his calculated evasion of race is apparent between the lines. When lauding KIPP, Brooks is not talking about rural poverty in Mississippi (95% of the 58,000 KIPP students are African American or Latino). When he writes about the benefits of parenting coaches or a “BoomerCorps” of over 65 do-gooders helping to instill character, he is not talking about Appalachia.

If not reducing poverty through character, what should we do? How should we remedy an economic system fraught with unemployment, injustice, and inequality? For starters, I think with employment and justice. I happen to think that some inequality is inevitable, but we should act to reduce its recent growth, through (gasp!) cash transfers and respecting and subsidizing work that we now consider low status.

I view my support of such policies as applied humility. this support is a consequence of recognizing that my success is not a simple result of my resilience, hard work and perseverance (I am sure I would score average on many of these indices of character), but a complicated blend of luck, privilege and undeserved gifts. A truly humble columnist might acknowledge his own luck and be less likely to lecture the poor on their lack of resilience, conscientiousness or prudence.

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Our New Arbiters of Truth: Google, Twitter and Cues of Online Credibility

In our modern era of splintered trust and millions of media niches, how do we decide that something is credible and trustworthy? A little funny episode of mistaken identity on twitter gave me an interesting view into these issues.

I come at this from several angles.

First, as a cognitive psychologist, I am interested in the thought processes that cause us to rate some sources or facts as true and trustworthy. I am always curious about the actual signals of credibility, rather than the stories we tell ourselves.

Second, as a teacher of students in college, I am interested in helping students gain skills in searching (as much as such skills exist) and hone their BS detectors so that they can leave college with the ability to not only recognize credible sources from hucksters and unscientific charlatans, but to see a spectrum of credibility and bias.

Finally, as a parent, I want to help my kids grow up savvy to a world of media where I won’t be there to tell them that chain letters on instagram are not true, whereas what they read on ESPN probably is.

I was reminded of the problems with teaching online credibility detectors recently, when after the Supreme Court handed down the Hobby Lobby decision, many people angry about the decision took to twitter to denounce the judges. Unfortunately, many did not realize that the Supreme Court has no twitter presence. These people surely did not realize that the Supreme Court is not exactly a high tech kind of place. These angry tweeters denounced what they thought was the Supreme Court, but was instead a blog which covers the Supreme Court. SCOTUSBlog, instead of correcting people, played along and mocked them mercilessly.

Of course SCOTUSBlog is not the official twitter feed of the Supreme Court.

Of course the Supreme Court does not have a twitter feed, they haven’t even “gotten to email yet:

By their own admissions, the justices on the highest court of the land, the US Supreme Court, are not the most tech-savvy bunch. But despite Justice Elena Kagan’s own acknowledgement that the court hasn’t “gotten to” e-mail yet—instead communicating with one another via memos printed on ivory paper—the justices have been tasked with solving some of the most thorny technology debates of our time.

But we shouldn’t mock these tweeters, but seek to understand why they were so misled. And when we do, we should be concerned that new arbiters of credibility have emerged, and they are not necessarily the ones we expect.

To begin, let’s look at the twitter profile of SCOTUSBlog. The bio says: A private blog about the Supreme Court of the U.S. Contact: 

So, that should be open and shut: “private” as in, not public. As in, not official.

But what about other indicators of credibility?

SCOTUSBlog has a shiny blue verified check. Twitter says this identities authenticity, but I think this spreads well beyond a simple: “This account is who it says it is.” That blue check means legitimacy and credibility to many many people.

SCOTUSBlog has 185,000 followers. Certainly follower count doesn’t equal credibility, but it sure helps.

What if we look at SCOTUSBlog’s webpage header? This is what our Hobby Lobby tweeters saw on June 30th:

Header of SCOTUSBlog on July 1st, courtesy of the internet archive

Header of SCOTUSBlog on July 1st, courtesy of the internet archive

This looks pretty official to me. Although the “sponsored by Bloomberg Law” should be a give-away that this is not an official government site, the name Bloomberg and the bureaucratic design make me think it is perhaps less of a give-away than it should be.

And now, they have changed the web header to:

Web header of the SCOTUSBlog today

Web header of the SCOTUSBlog today

Even more official looking!

I am pointing this out not to say that SCOTUSBlog is being misleading, I think they are doing fantastic legal journalism, and I applaud them for it. Their webpage is simple and well designed.

But this little incident of internet mistaken identity presents an interesting object lesson, and I would submit that follower counts, cues from professional web design, and that twitter verified logo can overwhelm other cues to credibility. It reminds me of a passage in Danah Boyd’s excellent chapter on “digital natives” in her new book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens:”

Everywhere I went, I heard parents, teachers, and teens express reverence toward Google. They saw Google as a source of trusted information in a digital ecosystem filled with content of dubious quality. More important, many of the people I met believed that Google was neutral, unlike traditional news sources such as Fox News or the New York Times. Most people take for granted that someone, typically the editor in chief, chooses what stories appear on the front page of a newspaper or which are covered in a TV segment.  Conversely, people naively assume that algorithms, procedural sets of instructions for calculating an output, such as the ones produced by
Google, must not have nearly the same biases as an editor.

When people don’t have specific knowledge, that the Supreme Court is famously untechnological, that SCOTUSBlog was a great journalistic source for interpretation of the fabulously complex decision about the Affordable Care Act, that an official government page will never use the words “sponsored by Bloomberg Law,” they trust other cues that are generally applicable to many sources. These general cues are now being provided by companies, like Twitter and Google, who have the reputation of passively transmitting communication, but are not passive, and indeed, are not even transparent in the ways that they provide this credibility:

If you think you meet the criteria for verification and have not yet received a badge, please be patient. We are working within key interest areas to verify accounts that are sought after by other Twitter users. We don’t accept verification requests from the general public, but we encourage you to continue using Twitter in a meaningful way, and you may be verified in the future. Please note that follower count is not a factor in determining whether an account meets our criteria for verification.

Rather than chuckling at the naivete of the angry Hobby Lobby tweeters, this all makes me even more resolved to teach such things to my students and my kids, and to do so in the context of all the misleading cues to credibility out there.

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Please allow me to (Re)Introduce Myself

Hello readers! Welcome to the new home of Cedar’s Digest.

I have decided to integrate my blog with my professional website, no longer putting a wall between my blog and my website that presents a more professional and scholarly profile.

I began a blog in 2005, posting some book reviews that I submitted for the Virginia Quarterly Review (many did not actually get printed, as a graduate student, you could get a free review copy if you pledged to write a 500 word review). Here’s a good one on Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshmen Year, in which an anthropology professor goes back to college (undercover) and tells of her experience. I also posted random stuff I found that I thought was cool. Like the Chronicles of Narnia rap. Or extolling the virtues of McSweeney’s Lists.

As time has gone on, I have found my blog becoming more formal and bigger part of my professional and scholarly work. I find myself trying to restrict my blogging to issues where my training and expertise give me something unique to contribute, and therefore, while still often personal, it has become a lot more professional.

So now, in the tabs above, you can see how I structure some of the facets of my professional life. I hope that people who read or find the blog might also find some of the rest of the site useful as well. If you find yourself drawn into a blog post about higher education advising, you could read about my advising philosophy, or even find some useful forms that I use to guide my students through the process of asking for a recommendation.

One final note, I have also moved, from the website, to my own hosted site. I have been inspired by the Open VA conference, and wanted to take more control of my own web identity. My entire site in now hosted by Reclaim Hosting, a wonderful little company run by people associated with Mary Washington University, Jim Groom and Tim Owens. I have had a great experience with them so far, and I would recommend very Reclaim Hosting highly for anyone, especially academics, looking to take control of their own web identity. One benefit for you, dear reader, is that there will no longer be any ads on any pages.

Ok, thanks for reading, and I would welcome any comments on any aspect of the site.


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Social Media as a Catalyst for Psychological Science

Can social media serve as a catalyst for psychological science?

I think many scientists are rightly skeptical of social media as a replacement for other normal scientific processes. Peer review will not be replaced by Tweep Review. Methods sections will not be replaced by “Storifies.”

However, it is equally clear that social media engagement can boost the spread of scientific information, and enhance scientific communication, both within a scientific community as well as between scientists and the public. Social media can be a catalyst for psychological science.

Last week Melanie Tannenbaum, Jorden Cummings, Stuart Ritchie and I presented a symposium at the Association for Psychological Science 2014 annual convention on Social Media as a Catalyst for Psychological Science, laying out both the why and how we have used social media to enhance our science.

Here is a pdf of my presentation, with slides and what I said, hosted by the Open Science Framework. I also expanded that into a blog post.

Here is Melanie Tannenbaum’s presentation (“Social Media can be for Science!“) on slide share. I thought Melanie did a great job of showing how facebook can be used to spread scientific knowledge to friends and family, but also to humanize science to people who might not otherwise encounter someone they consider a scientist in everyday life. When Melanie was curating and trimming her facebook friends, hoping to tailor what friends in different areas of her life saw (would runner friends want so much social psychology? Would psychologists want to see so many cat pictures?), she asked her friends if they wanted to be removed from any lists. One of her old high school friends wrote a poignant comment: “I dropped out of college so your posts are the closest thing I’ll get to an education, please keep me on all your lists.” It also struck me that while facebook links to scientific articles are no substitute for higher education, on Melanie’s facebook page they are more than just a clipped article, because they include the original article as well as discussion among Melanie’s social psychologist community. Eavesdropping on professional or expert dialogue is one of the unheralded benefits of social media to me, and Melanie had a number of great examples of good dialogue as well as the benefits to the rest of her extended social network.

Jorden Cummings talked about how a conversation on twitter led to a research project. Cummings Day APS 2014 – Jorden nicely laid out the process of recruiting participants through twitter, negotiating IRB protocols (she had an approved tweet to use for recruitment) and disseminating the results. I thought her experience also showed very nicely how twitter can link people from relatively disparate backgrounds. Jorden is an academic clinical psychologist who studies interpersonal relationships and psychopathology at the University of Saskatchewan, and her colleague on this project is T. Eugene Day, a systems engineer who studies quality improvement and patient flow, as well as care delivery as a Senior Improvement Advisor and Principal Investigator at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Stuart Ritchie closed our session with “4 tips for making psychology on twitter less annoying.” Ritchie – APS 2014 Twitter Talk – 1) Beware the echo chamber. Stuart pointed out that psychologists can lean heavily liberal, and we risk enclosing ourselves in echo chambers. Luckily for us, while moving to towns or neighborhoods that are more ideologically diverse might be difficult, following people who we don’t agree with on twitter is not that hard. 2) Think before you tweet… but also resist the urge to pile on. Highlighting the idiotic and prejudiced tweet by Geoffrey Miller, Stuart agreed that this was a bad idea, and we should avoid such a fate, but also cautioned against the momentum of outrage that can build on twitter. 3) Don’t be a replication bully. This episode has received even more attention since then, but Stuart reminded us what might seem to be a small bit of snark can be spread far and wide on twitter. 4) Finally, Stuart showed us how a bit of complaining on twitter about the poor methodology of a paper between himself, Keith Laws, Tim Smits and Daniel Lakens led to a published critique of the article. I thought this was a great example for two reasons. First, it shows how conversations on twitter can be “kindling” for longer, deeper, more substantial conversations on other channels. People on twitter often recognize the limits of 140 characters, and know you aren’t going to get a roaring fire from a few sticks, but sometimes that’s what you need to get it started. Second, I thought it showed how twitter can level status cues. Stuart is a graduate student and each of the other authors are professors. All too often the water cooler talk is segregated along status lines, and twitter can be an entry for junior colleagues to contribute. Perhaps this isn’t always the case, but I find that on twitter people might not take the time to glance at your conference name tag, or guess your age, and are more likely to react to the content of what you are saying.

Ok, that’s all. I hope that these presentations can help convince some of you psychologists not on twitter to get on, and maybe give a few tips to those of you who are already on or convinced that it is worthwhile.

Posted in psychology, science, web | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Social Media as a Catalyst for Psychological Science – My presentation

At the recent Association for Psychological Science annual convention, I co-chaired a symposium on “Social Media as a Catalyst for Psychologist Science.” In my next post I will give some context to the entire session, but first, here is my presentation, in blog form. This presentation is also available as a pdf: Riener – Social Media as a Catalyst for Psychological Science

NT homepage decline

I begin the motivation for using social media to spread psychological science with this chart, from the New York Times Innovation Report, a leaked internal document explaining the external challenges, internal struggles, and plans for the future for the New York Times to continue to be a successful media outlet. This chart illustrates how social media is coming to dominate the web, even “official” or “old media” sites like the New York Times, and how this is a very recent change (notice the years are from 2011 to 2013). This chart shows how visits to the NYT homepage have gone from 160 million a month to less than 80. People are finding the articles they want to read through social media.

These charts to the right (also from the same report) reinforce that point, but looking at the whole web. Visits to home pages are declining while social media referrals are climbing, all over the internet. People have NYTimes Innovation Report - Referralschanged the way they access the web, and shifting to getting referred from social sites.

Why communicate science online? I begin with how to be a scientist on social media by referencing an excellent primer by the biologists Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein. Their Figure 2 shows the different scientific purposes and time commitments of various social media activities. For this presentation, I will focus on twitter.

As Bik and Goldstein note, different social media are well suited for different purposes. However, one thing that they note in the article that is not clear from the figure, is that these interact. Twitter can help spread a blog post, and a conversation on a blog post can spill out into twitter and facebook. But this is a good framework for how to see the social media landscape and science. For this talk I will be focusing on twitter, which is my preferred social media network.

Liz Neely - twitter as cocktail party at conference

For how to think of twitter, I turn to Liz Neeley, who succinctly frames twitter as a cocktail party at a conference. It isn’t only a presentation, or a poster session (where people are only strictly business) but it also isn’t just your friends who are interested in everything personal. The way I approach it, scientists on twitter shouldn’t be afraid of sharing a few personal details here and there, but most of the people who follow you will do so because of what your professional expertise or interests are, not personal reasons. This of course varies, but I recommend starting out thinking of twitter this way, curating your friends this way, and putting that kind of filter on your communication.

Riener - Who Am I slide

This is a brief snapshot of who I am, what I tweet about, and what I am interested in. So on twitter I will follow people in each of these spheres. I follow other teachers of General and Intro Psychology, historians of psychology (and some historians), perception researchers, teachers, and other people involved in higher education policy debates and faculty governance.

With gratitude to Raul Pacheco, who has listed five things he thinks twitter is useful for in academic contexts, I decided on four for the few minutes I have with you today.

Here are 4 things I’ll talk about today that I find twitter useful for: news and discovery, building scholarly networks, quick help, and giving psychological science away.

News and Discovery

First, as a personalized newspaper. Here are some examples of things I found interesting and useful that came across my twitter feed recently, that I would have not seen otherwise. Holcombe - retina evolutionAlex Holcombe, a fellow perception researcher, came across a fact about the evolution of the retina (in a Nature Reviews Genetics article, a journal I do not read or track) that non-visual cells evolved into visual cells, and visual cells evolved into non-visual. Cool!

Chris Crew - Columbia PhDJay Van Bavel, a social psychologist at Columbia, tweeted a picture of Chris Crew giving a presentation (with Kenneth and Mamie Clark pictured on a slide in the background) and noted Crew was the first African American man to earn a Ph.D. in psych from Columbia since Kenneth Clark. Interesting (and sad) fact that I remember and pass on to my history of psychology class.

ENTJ destroyer of worldsFinally, a colorful example from the Onion, to use when I trash the Myers Briggs Trait Inventory.



Building Scholarly Networks

I also use twitter to build scholarly networks. As a cognitive psychologist in a small school, in a small town in Virginia, we don’t have frequent psychology journal clubs or symposia. So I use twitter to connect with psychologists I would not otherwise be able to have a conversation with. riener - pashler - nature picsHere I am having a brief conversation with Hal Pashler. I will also say that I think twitter often acts as a leveler. If you are a junior faculty or graduate student, you can still have a conversation with a senior faculty member, and the mediated nature of the communication can sometimes reduce some of the cues to power and status that are often present in real world contexts.

I also like twitter to broaden and diversify my scholarly network, beyond the academy, and beyond my areas of interest and research. Sanjay Srivastava is a social psychologist, Audrey Watters is a education journalist who is an excellent (and respected) voice on educational technology, Mark Changizi is a perception researcher who has left academia, but remains quite active in applying perception research to real life problems through his company 2AI labs. Bashir9ist is a pseudonym for a graduate student in neuroscience who I have had a number of conversations with about neuroscience, graduate training in psychology, and other shared interests over the course of a year or two. As he went on the job market, I came to do some informal mentoring and advice. He may not have needed it exactly, (he got an excellent job) but he has not been the only person who I have served in this role. For me, building this scholarly network is not just what I can take from my network, but what I can give back.

Quick Help

Another example, though it may seem trivial, is the quick, non-google-able answer to a question. I am thinking about training myself up on R this summer, but I am a bit daunted, and it was helpful to discover that Jonathan Goya, a computational biologist in my network, is willing to help. Another biologist friend, Jeremia Ory (of the perfect twitter name: DrLabRatOry), chimed in to agree that Jonathan was very helpful.

Giving Psychological Science Away

Me and Nyhan and KonnikovaMy final example of using twitter is to spread psychological science and interact with non-scientists about psychological science. This might be in interacting with a science journalist (as I did here with Maria Konnikova, who is actually a scientist herself so perhaps not a perfect example) or a fellow academic in another related field (Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist who studies false beliefs in politics), but it also might be hosting a chat session with teachers. In the case on the left I hosted a #psychat session and asked AP psychology teachers about how much writing their students did. I also shared some of my conceptions of college readiness.

I’ll close with what many people might think is the first reason to use social media as a psychological science: to spread their own work. My article on learning styles, attempting to translate some of the basic findings in cognitive psychology to show that learning styles are not educationally useful, was spread very widely on social media, and I can track when it is spread and encourage people to ask questions, or answer concerns. I will also add that the other ways that I use twitter contribute to this final use. Because I have built my scholarly networks, asked and provided quick help, interacted with science journalists, the people in my network are more likely to read and spread my science.

That observation bears repeating, that each of the many uses of twitter (and you will certainly find some more yourself) interact with each other. Promotion helps you build your network, and robust networks help you more effectively promote. Offering quick help builds up good will, but sometimes, so does asking for it. Sometimes someone else in your network had that same question and didn’t think to ask. Curating interesting news and discovering things you find cool often means you spread that stuff to your network, and you come to be trusted and respected for your unique perspective.

Finally, I’ll close by saying that twitter and social media have a built in “baby pool.” Jump in, follow ten people, spend ten minutes a day checking it, and let your network grow organically. Don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. Thank you for your time, and I hope to see you on the twitters!

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