undergraduate research

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.

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.)

 

ucsb-flight

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.

coding-manual-edits

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.

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.

ta-notes

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.

Part 6: Calm Before the Semester

It wouldn't feel right if I didn't end the summer without mentioning Au Bon Pain in some way.

It wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t end the summer without mentioning Au Bon Pain in some way.

As I was writing this blog post, it occurred to me that I’m going to start school in a couple of weeks, meaning that I have two weeks to get my research study ready for the start of the academic year. This is where I would say that’s plenty of time to get my study ready, but to be honest, I won’t actually know if it’ll be enough time until the semester starts because anything can happen in these two weeks. I feel pretty prepared for whatever can come up though, so bring it, last two weeks!

Even if I don’t manage to get piloting done before school starts, I have still accomplished a lot over these past three months. I had to squeeze researching background literature, brainstorming a procedure, crafting questionnaires, writing a proposal and drafting the introduction section of my thesis paper all in one summer. Especially since I haven’t done any of this by myself before, I’m pretty impressed at what I’ve done. I’ve received a lot of guidance and help from my mentor, but I still got to exercise a lot of agency in what I wanted for my project. So, if anything, I can definitely look back at this summer fondly as the summer that I worked my butt off for work that I really enjoy!

Anyway, other than piloting and waiting for the IRB, my schedule regarding the fellowship has calmed down. I’ll be taking my first break and go back home about a week from now (I’ll still be working, but at least it’ll be in a relaxing environment). I’m definitely going to take advantage of this mini vacation because things are going to ramp up once I get back. That said, I love running studies, so despite my busy schedule in the fall, I’m also super looking forward to seeing my summer work flourish into a real study!

Part 5: Piloting (without the planes)

Carnival tickets I'm using for my study, although I'm not going to spoil what they're for yet...

Carnival tickets I’m using for my study, although I’m not going to spoil what they’re for yet…

Since my last blog post, I have finished my IRB proposal and am waiting for the IRB to respond back. Until then, it’s time to pilot my study, and as much as I would love to fly a plane, that’s not what piloting means in my case. (Actually I’m terrified of heights so being a pilot would be awful, but I’m getting way off topic now).

Piloting for studies just means that I’m going to go over my study with people who aren’t actual participants. This week, I’ve started piloting with other research assistants in the Relationships Lab, who pretended to be participants in my study, except they got to be much more critical. I’ve asked them to point out anything that seems weird or confusing, which includes questions in the questionnaires and directions I give as an experimenter, and how I could improve these parts of the study. The point of this is to have people who don’t know about the study to go through it with fresh eyes, unlike me who has been buried in this study for the past three months.

After I’ve asked research assistants to help, I’m going to also look for real couples to help pilot as well. These couples will provide a fresh perspective along and will also provide results and voice concerns closer to what my potential participants would have. Piloting with real couples will then allow me to tune up my study more finely because they are representatives of the sample I’m looking for.

I will get to pilot until the semester starts, and maybe even into the first week of school if need be. I’m sure I will get a lot of feedback since this is the first time I’ve ever designed a study of this magnitude, but it’s still really exciting to finally see my study in action, even if it’s just through some trial runs.

Exploring My Freedom

Makal - Exploring My Freedom
As I sat, just a few days ago, in a conference room in Baker Hall surrounded by my fellow Fellows and their advisers, waiting quite impatiently for my turn to present the work I have done over the summer, I got to thinking about what I’ve done in the past three months. Of course, I know what I have accomplished in terms of my research project, as that was the core of the presentation. For those of you who missed it, here are some of the highlights:

  • I generated two unique research questions and hypotheses.
  • I crafted a research experiment to address these questions and hypotheses.
  • I found and created measures and manipulations with which to perform this research experiment.
  • I formulated these measures and manipulations into a coherent, hopefully acceptable IRB application (for which I am still waiting on approval).
  • I programmed all of the information from the IRB application into the online platform through which my study will eventually be made available to participants.

Though there is still work to be done before the school year, specifically in terms of piloting my study to ensure that there are no further changes to be made, and (God willing!) receiving IRB approval, I am able to look back on this summer and say that I have accomplished most of my goals. This is an incredible feeling – almost as good of a feeling as sitting down after completing my presentation. However, as I sat in that room sweaty and anxious, I was not thinking about my research goals and accomplishments. I was, instead, thinking about the summer I was able to have outside of my research.

This summer, thanks to the flexibility of the fellowship program, I was able to continue on with my job at the Carnegie Mellon University Store, enabling me to make some extra money. I then swiftly blew through this money during my travels, which included my family’s annual summer vacation to Wisconsin, as well as multiple trips to Washington, D.C. to visit my boyfriend and explore a new and historic city. Some of my most fond and educational memories of the summer come from the traveling I was able to do, and I cannot express my gratitude to the fellowship program for making this possible. Additionally, as I have written about before, I found a new love this summer: hot yoga. Having the flexibility to attend daily classes has allowed me to improve myself, both physically and mentally, in ways that I hope will carry into the rest of my life off of the mat.

Though I have already had a very fulfilling summer, it is now time for me to take some time off and regroup before the school year starts. In this next month, I will continue my travels – this time going out west to Utah and then on to California. I will still be in contact with my faculty adviser through email, sorting out any issues that may come about during study piloting that will occur while I’m gone. However, I can confidently say that I have made it through this summer of research, and that I have great momentum and hopes for when I get back to it in the fall.

The Richest Mine of Inspiration

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

It’s old news that inspiration can come from anywhere. J.K. Rowling says the spark for “Harry Potter” came from a dream – boring. Mary Shelley conjured “Frankenstein” from a “ghost story” challenge among friends – less boring. Inspiration can jump from a bizarre news story, a snippet of eavesdropped conversation, or a personal tragedy. But I’ve found the most reliable source of inspiration is just… talking.

Preferably to others, rather than myself (I’m not really going for a “Jekyll and Hyde” thing). And a lot of different others, from backgrounds I’m unlikely to encounter in my workshop classes and with viewpoints outside of my own personalized echo chamber. I’ve been fortunate this summer in my “exposure” to a wide variety of interesting people (plenty of them queer, I’ll admit – after all, I do have to stay on-topic). Part of this I’ve cultivated on purpose. I started volunteering at a radical collectivist bookshop in Bloomfield where I had hours-long discussions with some of the smartest freethinkers I’ve ever met. And last week, I began my internship at a New York non-profit for LGBT rights on a global scale; the dedication and perseverance of my activist colleagues has energized me daily. Other inspiring discussions caught me by surprise (turns out first-date conversation doesn’t have to be confined to “what’s your major” and “so this was fun”.)

Of course listening is a vital part of the kind of talking that inspires me. At work this week, an awesome visiting attorney specializing in LGBT asylum cases — think “if Idina Menzel was a lawyer” — never had to give the “compassion over money” speech for me to believe it. At the bookstore a couple weeks ago, I collaborated on a Tumblr meme with an anarchist trans girl who used to shoplift and is still part of a graffiti gang. Last weekend, I saw “Ghostbusters” with my best friend and had a capital-M Moment with the probable lady-couple next to us about how thousands of little queer girls are going to watch Kate McKinnon kicking butt and think “maybe this is me and maybe that’s okay.”

Everyone has a story to tell, sure, but not everyone has the resources or ability to tell it. I can only hope my project will do justice to a few of these often unheard voices. The funny thing is I was going to work something into this post about how odd it is that the word “inspiration” has such positive connotations even though I have definitely been inspired by things like breakups and mass shootings. But as inclined as I am toward cynicism in real life, I tend to lose track of that in my writing. I write to make a little more sense of the ugliness in the world, and to feel a little better about life. In fiction, at least, I’m good at happy endings.

Learn more about my project.