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.

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.

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.

Beginning fall semester


My collection of fragile animals. They'll never move.

My collection of fragile animals. They’ll never move.

I’ve begun work on another story. This story is about a world with only one difference from our own: every person is part of a pair. You recognize this person immediately and get along with him or her better than you get along with anyone else. This kind of setting might sound wonderful, but there are seven billion people in the world. For all you know, you’ll never meet the other half of your pair.

My particular story about this world begins when Weston sees Felicity across a graveyard. He’s visiting his father’s grave. Her mom was just buried. He knows immediately that they’re a pair so he approaches her. Felicity talks to him, but Weston feels as if she’s very unresponsive. Here’s a short excerpt from after Weston moves in with Felicity:

There was that expectation that because we were a pair we would also be in love with each other at first sight. I liked her, but I didn’t love her and I didn’t think that I ever would. There was something too sterile and robotic about her. She cleaned other people’s houses all day then came back and cleaned her house. The vacuum was always on when she was home. Her arm was always going back and forth.

I don’t think she ate in that house. There was no food on the shelves or in the fridge besides what I put there. When I put milk and eggs in the fridge it felt as if I was violating some rule that she had never told me.

I was asked over the summer by a friend why the main characters in this story don’t immediately get together. He said, “I’d get together right quick with my soulmate if I found her.” I told him that my story isn’t about soulmates. It’s about people who have the potential to mean a lot to you. Weston and Felicity aren’t meant to become a couple. They’re just a pair of people who help each other through difficult times.

Here is what Felicity’s perspective might be like:

When both of your housemates are gone, you don’t know what to do but run a sponge over the kitchen counter. You like the way the granite gleams when there’s a residue of water on its surface. You vacuum the floors. Dust the windowsills. You scrub dirt off the molding. Pour bleach in the sinks and toilets. While you move, you feel the same size as your body. When you stop moving, you sink back. Your vision becomes small and surrounded by black.

Your body is a cocoon. It protects you from the harshness of the outside. You think of yourself as different from it. There’s you, then there’s your body. When you don’t want to feel anymore, you loosen up on the controls for your body.

Learn more about my project.

Part 4: Gotta Keep It Ethical

Now that I have fully recovered from my authenticity debacle from a couple weeks ago, I’m now starting to write up basically the first official paper that will come out of this project: the IRB proposal.

The IRB (Institutional Review Board) is a group of people who look over proposed studies and make sure they are ethical enough for participants to participate in without being psychologically (or physically) harmed. (For a more thorough description, here’s the Wikipedia article on the IRB.)

Writing that your study is safe for participants to take isn’t enough, though. You have to write what your study is about, what implications your study has (so you’re not doing your study for no reason), where your participants come from (so you’re not just picking on a specific group for no reason), who your participants are, what risks and benefits are there for your participants, how you’ll keep your participants’ data confidential and anonymous, etc. It’s a tedious process, but the welfare of the participants is important, so it must be done.

You also have to provide all the materials you’re planning to use in your study. This includes consent forms, debriefing forms, all the questionnaires and your protocol script, which is a script of everything the experimenter(s) will say in the study, so I’m also writing up all of these.

Measures that have been through editing

Measures that have been through editing

The work has been pretty straightforward so far, but just thinking about turning in the IRB proposal makes me both super excited and nervous. I just have to submit it online, so that part is pretty remote and uneventful, but I’m still thinking about the 15 or so people reading my proposal. There’s nothing unethical at all about my study, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to get it approved, but it’s still tense. Maybe it’s because it’ll take them about a month to get back to me. I could do stuff in that time, like work on my thesis paper, but during that time, I’ll be like, “Gee, I hope everything is going okay over in the IRB!” (Whoops – unintentional rhyme.)

But evaluations like the IRB proposals are inevitable, and there’s no use in me freaking out about it. I mean I still will freak out, but I can at least freak out while working at the same time.

Part 2: Asking the Right Questions

Since I’ve started studying research design, I’ve never had to think in so much detail about asking questions. You would think you just put the questions you want to ask, but noooooo, there’s much more to it than that.

For my research, the basic question I want to explore is: what can lead to more authentic or genuine actions for people in relationships? So far, I think that affectionate touch between couple members can promote more authentic behaviors, such as sacrifices made for the partner. But it’s not enough to just ask whether A (touch) leads to B (authenticity); I need to also see how A leads to B. This link between A and B is called a mediator, and it basically explains the reason why A makes B occur.

To get all of the data I need for each part of this process, I will need to manipulate touch (so participants will either touch each other or not), have participants do a task where they have an opportunity to sacrifice for their partner and then ask them how authentic they felt about making that sacrifice. I would similarly do this with the mediator, but my issue is that I don’t know what my mediator(s) should be yet…

Wu Touch Mapping2

Mapping out what the mediator(s) can be

My adviser suggested that I map out what happens in this process to help brainstorm what kind(s) of mediator(s) I should look at. The main ones I’m interested in I’ve circled, so I’m thinking that touch leads to more authenticity because the touch receiver has higher security, empathy, commitment and responsiveness to their partner’s needs. All of these contribute to how salient one’s partner’s needs are to the person receiving the touch.

More specifically, I’m hypothesizing that when you receive touch from your partner, you feel more secure because touch conveys that the touch-provider (your partner) is there for you when you need them. You may also feel more empathetic because there is a physical connection between you and your partner, which makes you think of your partner more and can promote understanding. Touch can also lead to more commitment because now that you know your partner is there for you, you would feel more committed to your relationship at that moment. Responsiveness would also go up because touch would increase how attentive you are to your partner’s needs. Overall, your partner’s touch would make them and their needs more salient to you because touch is a physical indicator that you partner is there and cares for you, thus touch would make you more likely to reciprocate their feelings.

This is just my current, rambling train of thought, though, and I’m going to talk this over more with my adviser to sort out the kinks. Then I’m going to have to do more research (see, you do have to do background research forever!) about how people have measured these mediators, and then write out my questionnaires.

Side note: You know how sometimes you fill out questionnaires and it seems like the questions are asking you the same thing multiple times? That’s on purpose. That’s just how researchers make sure that they’re measuring the correct construct, or concept. In my case, I would want to ask multiple questions along the lines of “How true to yourself were you while doing this task?” to make sure that I’m measuring authenticity as completely as possible. So now you know, so don’t be too weirded out if you see this kind of thing in questionnaires.

Part 1: Background Research for Daaaaaays

So for the past week that I’ve been back on campus, I’ve been trying to eat everything Au Bon Pain has to offer… and starting to work on my fellowship of course.

Wu - Au Bon Pain.jpeg

(Not sponsored by Au Bon Pain)

First thing to do on the summer fellowship checklist: more background research. I did search for some preliminary background literature when writing up my application, but now that I don’t have a hard deadline, I can take more time to go into all of the background research out there.

There are three topics I have been looking up for my project (in the context of romantic relationships): authenticity, willingness to sacrifice and affectionate touch. While my research project focuses on all three topics together, I have to see what researchers have contributed in each of these topics separately. Looking up past literature basically involves me reading a ton of articles and taking notes on their main points. This is as tedious as it sounds (especially when you get a 75-page PDF, while the average article length is 10 pages), but hey, I certainly learn a lot.

“Authenticity” generally means the degree to which you express your true self in what you do. Researchers have found that the more authentic you are, the more satisfied you are in your relationships because you are more open to others about who you are and are not afraid of hiding anything. On the other hand, people low in authenticity, who would rather hide their true selves from others and/or may not acknowledge who they truly are, are often dissatisfied in their relationships. This is because they feel stressed and conflicted that they are not showing others who they really are and are scared about others finding out about their true selves. That being said, forcing yourself to be authentic isn’t good either because even the manner in which you’re authentic has to be authentic, not just because someone told you so or you should feel like you should be authentic. I could go on about authenticity for days, but only so much can be said in one blog post.

Willingness to sacrifice is how willing you are to forego your own self-interests for your someone else’s interest. People do this all the time: from something as small as going to a restaurant your partner likes that you may not like to something as substantial as moving across the country for your partner’s job. (The term sacrifice makes it seem like a much bigger deal than what it can be, so on questionnaires, most researchers just say how willing you are to make a “change.”) While the more willing you are to sacrifice, the more satisfied you are in your relationship, the same is true in the other direction: higher satisfaction in your relationship can lead to being more willing to sacrifice for your partner. Willingness to sacrifice also contributes to a higher level of commitment, which also feeds back into relationship satisfaction. People can differ in why one is willing to sacrifice. You could sacrifice because you really want the best for your partner, or you only make sacrifices because that’s what people in relationships are supposed to do. This has to do with authenticity because authentically making a sacrifice can either be super good or super bad for the relationship. If you don’t really want to make a sacrifice but you do anyway, it can lead to inauthenticity. Hopefully I’ll be able to learn more about the relationship between authenticity and willingness to sacrifice in my research project.

Affectionate touch is exactly what it sounds like: touching others in a way that show you love and care for them. Touch has been shown to be not only great for relationships but also great for your health. Touch can reduce stress psychologically and physiologically, establish intimacy, increase trust, improve security, promote interdependence and closeness, etc. The Relationships Lab I work in has been doing work with affectionate touch for the past few years, and we’ve found that just imagining touch is good enough to reduce stress, promote security and encourage exploration (trying new things). In relation to authenticity and willingness to sacrifice, because touch can increase closeness, this may increase people’s awareness of their partner’s needs and increase motivation to attend to those needs. Being more attentive to partner’s needs can lead to a higher level of willingness to sacrifice and also to more authenticity because the person feels genuine about sacrificing for their partner. Again, hopefully I can see the specifics of this process in my thesis project.

So now that I have researched what have been done in the past (and will continue–researching past literature never ends), I now have to see how I can use this past information to guide me with the current research. As a sort of preview, the next thing I have to do is gather and create materials for my actual study!

On a completely different note, I found a cool article on attachment styles and pets, which has nothing to do with authenticity, sacrifice or touch, but it somehow popped up in my search results. This article is particularly interesting because you normally only hear about attachment styles with respect to other people, so it’s interesting how this concept applies to people’s relationships with their pets. Also, I have always wanted pets and never got to have any (my ideal pets are a Pembroke Welsh corgi and a Russian blue cat, but I will take care of anything), so any mention of a pet will get my immediate attention. Anyway, if just studying people gets boring, I know that I can study pets and people instead.

How to Fight Jealousy

Just a reminder that today, the 2015 Dietrich College Honors Fellows presented on their work so far this summer. We had hoped to share videos of each presentation, but due to technical difficulties, we’ll just be sharing recaps and a few photos throughout the week.

For Kaylyn Kim’s Senior Honors Program thesis and fellowship project, she decided to create a psychological study to find out how to fight jealousy using security[1] copy

Kim’s project advisor is Associate Psychology Professor Brooke Feeney, an expert in studying interpersonal relations – particularly in how close relationships help people to thrive through adversity and through the pursuit of life challenges.

First, Kim, a psychology major with a minor in creative writing, talked about how she needed to define “romantic jealousy.”

“It’s the threat of comparison and competition and the fear of being replaced,” she explained. “Jealousy is not inherently a bad emotion. It comes from a place of love, but the outcomes can be negative.”

Security priming has been shown to boost moods and self-esteem, so Kim wanted to explore how it affects jealous thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. She used imagining a partner’s touch or sound of their voice as examples of security primes.

Kim has already started running pilots, and she detailed how her experiment works. Participants must speak English, be at least 18 years old and have a romantic partner that they have been dating for at least three months who is also willing to participate. They will not be aware of the study’s real goal.

The couples will fill out background questionnaires and go through a series of activities designed to gather baseline information and then elicit jealous reactions.

Kim believes that the implications from her work will include creating interventions “to enhance the well-being of individuals and their relationships.”

Read more about Kim’s project.

Check out a photo of all of the Honors Fellows before the presentations.

On Piloting

I’m very happy to announce I just conducted my first pilot test of my research study! I’ve run through the protocol and script many times with advisors, grad students, and friends, but not on anyone in the unsuspecting population. I had my lab manager and a research assistant act as my ‘couple’ who had been dating for three months and ran through the study like it was the real thing. Afterwards, they gave me great feedback on things they liked, and things that needed to be fixed.


All my applications for the IRB are written and complete. I plan on continuing pilot testing this week, making necessary changes in my application, and finally submitting on Friday! Then I wait for their response.

My pilot testers are going to consist of a wide range of opinions that’ll give me crucial feedback. So as I mentioned, today I had my knowledgeable research assistant and lab manager duo to test on; later this week, I’ll also have a completely unsuspecting real couple along with my research advisor and grad student powerhouse duo. Each pilot I’ll find something new to fix, so the next one will run smoother. Hopefully by Friday, I’ll have worked all the kinks out.

My lab room, where I watch!

My lab room, where I watch!

The aftermath of the study – piles and piles of questionnaires

The aftermath of the study – piles and piles of questionnaires

I’m excited to move on from the ‘writing’ stage of the study onto the ‘doing’ stage. It was so fun hearing what my pilot couple had to say about my baby, and it made me excited to fix it so the next couple could experience it as well. It’s also quite awakening, to go from imagining what it’ll be like to see it come to life.

Learn more about my project.