Part 10: Predictions Can Go Awry, but That’s Okay

The past couple weeks have probably been the most intense weeks of my thesis, but they were intense for a reason. Over the past two weeks,  I have ended my study and analyzed my results. After about 9 months since I came up with my hypotheses, I finally have results to report.

Mediation Figure Final.png

Figure of my hypotheses, although my results did not work out this way at all

First of all, affectionate touch did not significantly affect any of my results: participants in both the touch and no-touch conditions did not differ in how much they sacrificed, their motivations, or how aware they were of their relationship or how positively they felt about their relationship. There was, however, a marginal effect of touch on altruistic motives, but weirdly enough, participants in the touch condition were less altruistic than participants in the no-touch condition. Other results included that approach (wanting to achieve something) and altruistic (prioritizing the partner) motives were associated with more sacrifice while avoidance and egoistic (prioritizing the self) motives were associated with less sacrifice, which generally aligned with what we predicted. Also, being more aware of one’s relationship was associated with more altruistic motives, but having a more positive orientation towards the relationship was negatively correlated with approach motives, meaning participants were motivated to make sacrifices less. While I didn’t make any predictions about approach motives, this seems to contradict what we would generally expect if we assume that having positive feelings about your relationship makes you want to help your partner more.

For the most part, these results have not really supported my hypotheses, but that’s not a bad thing at all. If anything, it’s more interesting when you find results that are contrary to what you thought would happen. It makes you question existing theories or realize that a theory may not apply in all contexts and needs some revising. In this particular case, touch had the opposite effect of what I predicted, albeit small in magnitude. Even though touch has been theorized to promote trying out challenges via feeling secure, in this case, touch made participants wanted to sacrifice less. When I was thinking about why this was, the first thing I thought of was that touch in my study might have been interpreted differently. Instead of interpreting their partner’s touch as “I support you, and you can take on any challenge,” instead they interpreted their partner’s touch as “I support you, and I will do things for you if you don’t want to do it.” Touch in this case would serve as a reminder that participants can depend on their partner when they were in need, therefore they were less likely to sacrifice and rather have their partner do stressful task for them (the negative relationship between positive orientation and approach motives may support this reasoning too). Also, the situation my participants were in may differ from previous studies. No touch study has looked at how touch would influence sacrifice behaviors, so it’s possible that sacrifice provides a unique context where touch differs in its effects.

Even though many psychologists intend to confirm their hypotheses, I have no problem with my results contradicting my hypotheses instead. If anything, this gives me, and possibly others, the opportunity to reevaluate the meaning of touch and what it means when we touch someone in our daily lives. Of course, I have only ran one (severely underpowered) study, so no one should put too much stock in this study. In order to reach more justifiable conclusions, others (and maybe me too if given the chance again), should run more studies trying to replicate (or even refute) these findings.

On Writing What I Feared


*Dusts off blog*

It’s been way too long since I last updated. So much has happened since, and I still can’t believe that my senior year is almost over. I’m definitely getting antsy for graduation, but at the same time, I do want these next few weeks to slow down a bit. Everyone has been asking me how I feel about graduating, and I didn’t know how to answer, but it’s finally starting to hit me that I won’t be walking this campus anymore, and I won’t be seeing all the familiar faces of classmates, professors and friends.

My thesis project has changed and grown beyond ways I could have ever foresaw. A part of me is excited to share it with others, whereas another part of me is completely terrified. It’s become something so close to me, and the thought of letting it out into the world makes me so nervous, I could throw up. I’m not scared about the judgment of others and whether they’ll think it’s good or not, but rather, I’m scared of putting these stories out there because they’re so personal to me. They’re not fiction anymore. They’re about my family.

This lack of updates from me has been because I went through period of time where I was struggling with my project. I lost faith in it. Over the summer, in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program, I was working on a collection of fictional short stories surrounding the coming of age of a young Vietnamese-American boy. I had hoped to draw on my own experiences to craft these stories. It was exciting to see some of them come together, and I grew invested into the lives of these characters, but somehow, along the way, I lost the passion for it. Not because I didn’t believe in them anymore or that I thought what I was trying to portray wasn’t important, but because something about the project felt dishonest. And after talking about my lack of inspiration with my advisor, Jane McCafferty, we both came to realize that maybe it was because I wasn’t able to truly achieve the goal I had set out when I first wanted to pursue my honors thesis project. My goal was to portray an honest coming of age story, influenced by Vietnamese culture and values. But doing so through channeling all my emotions, experiences, and the experiences of those around me into these fictional characters felt inauthentic.

As I sat in Jane’s office, we talked about why I was inspired to pursue the theme of this project in the first place. And it was because I felt that the stories I had heard from my family and friends growing up wasn’t truly represented in literature. We talked about the experiences of my mother and my grandmother, about religion in Vietnam, about war, about violence, about daily life there, and how it was almost tragic that the amazing lives they’ve lived won’t necessarily get to be heard by others. They’re just normal people, and we tend not to focus on the stories of normal people’s lives, even though these normal people may have had extremely important experiences.

So, Jane encouraged me to tell that story. Write about my family. At first, I wasn’t excited. I was nervous. For one reason, it sounded incredibly self-indulgent, and for another reason, it felt too personal. If I wrote about my family, I would have to write about myself too, and I hated the thought of that. I definitely would consider myself more of a fiction writer, so writing about things that really happened and about real people I knew was so nerve-wracking. I felt such a weight on my shoulders to portray them in a way that was honest, and fair, but I didn’t know if I could handle that responsibility.

I started with small steps. Interview those around you, Jane had told me. Gather your inspiration, take notes and record your conversations, but don’t write anything just yet. Jane has always been great at keeping me calm throughout all my moments of anxiousness and insecurities, so I’m beyond grateful for that. I did as she had suggested and talked to those close to me. I found that it was my grandmother’s stories that truly reeled me in. I learned so many things about her life that she never told me before, that she never told anyone before. I felt inspired again. And I hadn’t felt so inspired to write in such a long time.

I had to race against the clock (and I still am! That deadline…) But I’m so happy to say that I’m actually proud of what I have accomplished. I’m proud that I wrote what I was scared to write. This collection of short stories I have put together documents my grandmother’s coming of age as a Vietnamese woman. The pieces within this collection touch upon the violence of the Vietnam War, domestic abuse, religion and discrimination against Amerasians, all through her perspective and personal experiences. The final project will hopefully take the form of a nicely bound book, so I can share it with others, but I truly hope that I can give her the first copy. The title of this collection is 9 AM, in honor of the conversations my grandmother and I had every week, at 9 AM. And when I told her that I was writing about her life, about so many intensely personal aspects of her life, I was afraid she would feel uncomfortable about it (understandably so). I was expecting a lot of questions, but the only question my grandmother asked was “Is it any good?” Haha, I sure hope so.

And even though the I’m not using any of the pieces I wrote in the summer, I don’t think of any of it as waste. I did at first. It freaked me out when I completely changed the direction of my project in the middle of my fall semester, especially when I already had completed a good chunk through the Summer Fellowship Program. But I knew that this project could have only become so important to me if I made that change. I don’t think of the time I spent over the summer was a waste. In fact, that time helped further develop my craft, read stories by other Vietnamese-American authors, and give me a space to be excited about other people’s projects and ideas. And I still am excited to see the final projects of all the other fellows. I am so incredibly grateful to the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program because it allowed me to explore my own passions in such a safe environment. I don’t think my project could have grown into something that means so much to me if I didn’t start it as early as I did, if I didn’t have that time to be confused, to fail and to wander a bit.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it’s been a hell of a journey. So, for anyone that’s reluctant about whether they want to pursue their own honors thesis project or not, I’m a complete supporter for it. I want others to be able to have the fulfilling experience that I am lucky to have had. There’s almost no other better feeling in this world than that feeling in your gut that says “This is all actually starting to come together, and this might actually be good.” Despite all the stress, those fears and worries that come along with doing something like this, it’s worth it.




Surviving the Second Semester

I am a second semester senior, and the struggle to stay motivated is very real. As is evidenced by my lack of blog posts, the first half of this semester was rather slow for me in terms of working on my thesis. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that I have been much busier than I had originally expected this semester! On top of my classwork, I had the added stress of awaiting decisions and doing interviews for graduate school, was a model for CMU’s Lunar Gala fashion show, and have been working extra shifts at my jobs to prepare for post-grad life–all the while trying to enjoy what is left of my senior year.

However, if I’m being honest (both with myself and all of you), a main holdup for me was finding the motivation to work on my thesis. Because I had collected all of my data by the end of fall, I came into my second semester feeling confident about my thesis. I felt that I was in a good place in terms of my timeline, and that I should focus on more pressing matters before worrying about my thesis–I would get it done eventually. But, here I am, halfway into the second semester and about a month away from the final due date, and it’s still not finished.

Though the clock is definitely ticking, I have recently been able to get back into the swing of things. Though picking up extra work shifts may never end for me, Lunar Gala has ended, and I was finally accepted into a graduate program. Tying up these loose ends has lifted an unbelievable burden off my shoulders, and has allowed me to return my focus to my thesis. In fact, when I was not working on my thesis over spring break last week, I went and visited my potential graduate school. Seeing the place that I might call home for the next5+ years has made me incredibly excited about my future, and I know that an integral step to getting there is finishing my thesis.

A photo taken while visiting my potential grad school, The New School for Social Research, in NYC.

Part 9: Inspiration for More

In terms of updates on my study, I’m still collecting data for my study and have about 3 weeks left (cross fingers that I can get enough participants). Also, research assistants and I have started the coding I have mentioned in my last post, and although there were discrepancies in the beginning, we are now working at a good pace. (Kudos to them too! It’s not easy working with a brand new coding system.)



Santa Barbara was definitely one of the nicer places I visited.

Although nothing too eventful is happening with my study here in Pittsburgh (although I am very happy that coding is working out), I have been busy with my research in other ways. Recently, I have been on interviews for graduate school, and during my trips, I’ve had the awesome opportunity to meet many intelligent and insightful psychologists. I not only learned about the cool work they’re doing but also received feedback on my current study. Often they would ask really hard questions of things I haven’t thought of, such as whether participants were considering my raffle task as a sacrifice, meaning do they perceive a cost in the task. In my study, I never directly ask participants whether they are taking a cost because I took that fact for granted, even though I really shouldn’t have. Although I do ask questions like “I did not want to do the task,” which would imply that there was some cost, I really should have included an explicit question about whether there was a cost in giving more tickets to themselves than their partners. Despite the mistakes I’ve made, I now at least know what I should do moving forward, and if anything, this actually motivated me to make better studies.

I have received positive feedback to build off of as well. A few faculty members have suggested future study ideas for what I could do in graduate school. For example, what if I had participants choose a kind of motivation to follow and then see what the outcomes are, instead of measuring motivation at the end? Other than touch, what other activities could promote intrinsic motivation? The ideas I discussed with faculty members were super interesting to me, and for the first time in a while, I felt really inspired to do research. (Not to say that I’m not excited about my research now, but there definitely have been slow days.)

When I first heard that I had to go through the interview process, I was terrified. Spending most of the day being interviewed by at least four faculty members sounded super intimidating, and I was sure I would be too nervous to hold a conversation. Much to my happy surprise, turns out faculty members are very chill and fun to talk to. Sure, they were evaluating me and pretty much determining my academic future, but I had fun discussing research ideas and future work I could do. This was the first time I got the chance to discuss ideas with so many psychologists, and this makes me even more excited at the prospect of pursuing research as a career and having the chance to collaborate with some great thinkers!

Part 8: Coding Between the Lines

For the most part, my research has reached a pleasant stasis since my last blog post. A team of experimenters and I have been running sessions every week and slowly but surely collecting data.

That being said, I’m still working on new things. I am now working on a new part of data collection/analysis: coding response data. (I know this is CMU, but no, not programming coding.) A section in my study is where participants write about whether they made a sacrifice for their partner and what their motives were for their actions. My focus is on whether they had intrinsic motivation, but I am also assessing other types of motives to see how they all relate with each other and fit with the literature’s findings. Now we have to take the participants’ responses and code them for what kinds of motivations appear so we can see what kinds of motivation touch promotes.

Unfortunately, no one has released a standardized coding scheme for motivation for writing responses. Researchers have come up with definitions and methods to categorize behaviors as certain types of motives, but no one has implemented a way for how these motivations would manifest in writing. Thus I have to work from scratch. I started with the basic definition of each motivation and then thought about how these would play out in responses. For example, intrinsic motivation is about doing an activity because you truly want to do that activity, such as doing something out of enjoyment or interest. A phrase such as “I wanted to help my partner” would be coded high on intrinsic motivation because phrases like “I want” indicate that the participant truly wanted to make a sacrifice.


Fun fact: 90% of my life is just editing

Of course, there’s always the danger of reading too much into what a participant wrote or making too many leaps of inference. That’s why it’s important for coders to give higher ratings for statements that are explicit and clear and to not overthink ambiguous statements. For now, I am working with my advisor to work out the kinks of how to code these responses and how to make it easy and clear for new coders to learn. We should be able to have a workable coding scheme come January.

No Slacking November


img_5183November is here, and that means two things: it’s almost the holidays(!!!!) and it’s almost time for everything that I have been working on (or not) throughout this semester to be due. Though I am delighted by the prospect of having a month off from school, I know that getting to that point will be no walk in the park.

Throughout this month, I will continue to work on my grad school applications, as well as writing the beginning sections of my final thesis paper. Though both of these tasks are not only very important, but also very time consuming, I must admit that I have fallen prey to the temptation of procrastination. However, now that I only have a month to finish everything, it’s go time. I have always told myself that I work well under pressure, and this month will be the ultimate test of that. Though, as usual, I am worried, I am confident that I will get everything done with the help of my advisor, family, and friends.

Luckily, the beginning of November brought me more than just a reality check. I just recently received data back from the soft launch of my study, and everything seems to be going well! Though the soft launch data only contained data from 12 participants, it provided a final opportunity for edits. In our piloting phase, we were focused on making changes to the study based on flaws in the design, questions, etc. However, this data allows us to make changes based on actual participant responses. I will be presenting my study to the entire Relationships Lab this Friday, and, after getting some final feedback from my colleagues, I should be ready to fully launch the study! Thankfully, data analysis isn’t in my plan until next semester. So, once the study is fully launched, I can keep focus on my current tasks, and just wait until the data is sent back to me.

Sweet New Year

The fall is upon us; this is the realization that I had as the temperature took a sudden dive and I pulled a sweater and umbrella out from my closet. This Monday and Tuesday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I celebrated with apples and honey for a “sweet new year”, and dinners filled with my grandma’s recipes (kasha varnishkas, goulash, honey cake). I’ve been thinking about and planning for the year ahead, my final year of undergraduate school, and where it might take me. October is a month filled with job interviews and job fairs. My friends are in Seattle for an interview one day, back in school the next, finishing final touches on medical school and graduate program applications. The next year seems like a distance away, and yet here we are, trying to make decisions that will prepare us for the next move, and then, hopefully, for the next. Wrapping my head around where we may all end up in a year is like writing a collection of tension-filled fiction in itself.


Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!

I have also been thinking about my thesis, and where it may take me. I am grateful for the momentum that I was given over the summer, but now I am forced to be even more mindful of getting myself to the writing table. This past month, I gave myself the commitment to find time to sit and write every single day, weekends and weekdays alike. Amid reading assignments and engineering group projects, job applications and exams, I have been finding the space to give my writing the priority it deserves – to not just let the days slip away. (Of course, weekly meetings with my advisor, Kevin Gonzalez, have provided the necessary encouragement). Some days, this has meant finding the silence early in the morning, and others – later at night.

I have been working on a story that now might be turning into a lengthier novella. There is also the chance that, when I’m through, I will have to untangle it into two distinct stories. I’m not sure where it will end up now, or where the stories of the rest of the year will take me. In any case, I will be writing! Have a happy and healthy new year, everyone!

A GREat start to Senior Year

It is now October, and we are about 6 weeks into the school year. That is 6 weeks into my senior year of college, and it feels absolutely unreal! Actually, I retract my statement. It feels a little bit TOO real. As the school year began, so too did all the responsibilities that come with being a senior: the most notable of which is applying to graduate school. I am applying to Clinical Psychology Ph.D programs, a.k.a. one of the most competitive program types out there. To say I’m stressed out would be an understatement. However, as with everything I do, I’ve got a structured plan, and am making steady progress.

In fact, this past Friday I completed an integral step in the grad school application process: I took the GREs. All I can say is thank goodness that’s over with! For the month of September, I spent, no exaggeration, all of my free time studying for the test. Though it prepared me to do well, it did hinder my ability to work on other things, such as my honors thesis. However, now that the test is over and I have a bit more free time, everything with the study is back on track; it has been piloted and is just about ready to launch! If all goes well, the month of October will be spent collecting data!

I am incredibly excited with all the progress I am making, both in terms of grad school applications and my honors thesis. And, though I know things won’t be slowing down for me any time soon, I am comforted by the fact that I have plans to move forward with, and a support system that can help me get through anything and everything.


Special thanks to my wonderful housemates for my post-GRE surprise: a piece of Prantyl’s burnt almond torte cake saying “U R GREat”


Part 7: Learning Through Teaching

Despite the fact that I have been deep in schoolwork for a little over a month, my honors thesis has been making progress, albeit a little slower than I had hoped (something I’m sure all the fellows here can relate to). Ideally, I had hoped to start my study by the first or second week, but piloting and setting up the study took a little longer than I thought, and it took more like three to four weeks to actually start oops. On the plus side, as of writing this post, I have recruited three couples 😀 Again, I would’ve liked to have recruited more couples at this point in time, but I would rather have everything carefully prepared than rush into things. I also still have until March to recruit all my participants, so anything (good or bad or unexpected) can happen until then.


Some of my TA notes that also apply to my own research

Another plus side to school starting is that my TA job has started. And no, I’m not just happy because I’m earning money. I’m TA’ing for a research methods class in social psychology, where students learn about research methodology in the classroom and also by running their own studies. I not only do the typical grading job but also help out students with their research projects. In a weird way, now I get to be a mentor for these students. Much like how my advisor helped me over the summer with polishing my ideas and offering methodological advice, now I get to help my students figure out how to best conduct their research to study a topic they’re interested in. Of course, I’m not an expert, but hopefully I’ll be able provide some insight since I’ve gone through the research methodology process this past summer.

This role reversal will also help me out in my research because I’ll have more exposure to others conducting research. Just because this is in a class setting doesn’t mean that I won’t experience similar issues that my students are going through now. Deciding how to measure constructs, coming up with study designs, and creating a study procedure is something all researchers deal with no matter how experienced they are. In a sense, I’m really lucky that I get to run my study for my thesis along with guiding my students with their own research because these two experiences play off of each other and provide a unique experience for me to learn from and to continue improving.

Working with Unanticipated Elements That Become a Part of My Own Narrative


Fall 2014 FORGE semester outing with our refugee family

Each week, I open up the thesis proposal I wrote in March to re-evaluate my research goals and scroll down to the timetable that I’d created with my adviser.

Looking at it, I’m realizing that I need to adjust the deadlines I’d set for myself. There were several unanticipated bumps along the road that had kept me from completing the bulk of my fieldwork for my research by the end of September.

I felt disappointed and frustrated. Now that I had classes Monday through Friday, I wondered whether or not I could make up for a few months of fieldwork. For days, I contemplated over how I would reallocate my timetable and it proved to be extremely difficult. Without any data, I struggled to imagine the extent of my abilities to conduct interviews while juggling classes. It’s easy to schedule in time where I work on my literature review and put together my poster for a presentation for a Dietrich College Family Weekend event, but the interviews will require a few hours that include commute time, the actual duration of the interview and the time it will take for me to transcribe the recorded interview and reflect on the interviews as part of the analysis.

The longer I wait for the IRB to approve of my study, the more anxious I am. Whenever anyone asks me how my research is going, I feel a knot in my stomach because all I’ve accomplished in the last week is adding a few more articles to my annotated bibliography.

I still see my FORGE family on the weekends and it’s amazing how a few hours with them helps me relax. I relax because the conversations I have with them are not about my research. I relax because I can sit on their couch with them and watch Hindi movies without subtitles. I relax because they’re looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Nepali holiday. I relax because being present with them reminds me why I was motivated in the first place to pursue my thesis.

I’m looking forward to my weekends as soon as my IRB proposal is approved, because I will be having conversations with a community that reminds me of the importance of the present.

It’s ironic to me that as I constantly think about narrative inquiry, one of the methods I am using for my research, I realize that it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. Narrative inquiry is a methodology that encourages researchers to value the lived experiences of their subjects.

Lekkie Hopkins, who advocates using narrative inquiry in refugee research, wrote, “Researchers must understand that if storying is to grapple with the richness and complexity of lived experience, it will probably be chaotic and messy, as well as clear and straightforward. Researchers wanting to investigate the sociology of refugee experiences might be well advised to ensure that the stories they gather from research participants are not too neat, too straightforward, too much reduced to bare essentials in their telling, lest the chance to allow the stories to become personally and politically resonant be lost.”

I remember reading Lekkie Hopkins in March of this year and interestingly, I’m looking back at her abstract and making a connection to my own narrative as well as the narratives of the refugees I hope to hear soon. My own narrative, or my own lived experience, will be messy and chaotic at times and that’s how it should be.

I know that this sounds cliché, but it really is important to live in the present. Too much time is spent organizing, and reorganizing, my Google calendar. I’ve adjusted my timetable, come to terms with it and moved on.