Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Congratulations to Matt Thompson, Jason Tangen, and Sean Murphy for winning 2nd place in the Best Illusion of the Year contest at the VSS conference this year.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Conferences Round 2

Today we have an inaugural post by Anthony Harris on his recent experiences with the conference world.

From the 12th to the 15th of April this year the University of New South Wales hosted the 39th Australasian Experimental Psychology Conference (EPC to its friends). EPC gives experimental researchers of all types a place to come together and share their work. Word nerds rub elbows with attention researchers, face processing shares a stage with emotion, behavioural researchers hob-nob with the imaging crowd. It's quite a melting pot. This was my first conference and I had a lot of fun, a lot of beer, and I learned a lot about what this part of a research career is all about.

As well as being my first conference, this was my first time presenting my research outside my lab group, which was a little daunting. I freaked out for about two weeks beforehand. What would I present? How would it be received? Would someone notice the flaws in my study, publicly declare me a fraud and a failure, rip off my name tag and have security escort me from the building? All of this worry was largely unfounded, so I wanted to write this post to perhaps allay a few of the fears of anyone heading off to present their research for the first time. 

I presented a poster, which is probably less stressful than standing in front of a room full of people and giving a talk. On the other hand, those giving talks only have to take a few questions at the end and then they're free. A poster session could be considered a two hour long question session. This was a frightening idea for me because my research had what I considered a fairly obvious problem with it, and at the time I was yet to figure this problem out. I imagined two hours of one person after another grilling me on the problem, each more indignant than the last. Happily, this was not what happened.

Did people notice the problem? Of course. These people evaluate research every day for their bread and butter; they're pretty good at it. Were they horrible about it? Of course not. All research has problems; yours, mine, and theirs. People are generally understanding of this. But also, you are more of an expert in your particular research niche than the majority of people you speak to. As such, I found that if you know your field people are pretty willing to accept your explanations for any problems in your results (or they're at least polite enough not to laugh in your face). I think this holds up for talks as well. In all the talks I saw the tough questions were reserved for the experienced researchers. The newbies all got off pretty light.

So if you're preparing to present at your first conference, just remember no one goes to conferences with a hunger for the blood of young researchers. Everyone is there to do some science, share some ideas, and to have a good time. The people I met were all lovely, or at least polite. So relax and enjoy your first  conference.

Thanks for reading,


 Comic courtesy of

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Conference Time

This week we have a guest post by the lovely Nerisa Dozo.

On April 12th 2012, a whole gaggle of social psychologists descended upon Adelaide for the annual Society of Australasian Social Psychologists conference.

The conference is a 3 day affair packed with key note speeches, post-graduate workshops (How to survive your PhD. How to not kill your supervisor) and talks on everything from breast implants and pole dancing to sexism and unhealthy eating patterns (No, I am not joking). It was a great mix of post-graduate students at so many different stages of their career all the way up to academics with CVs longer than my honours thesis. This mix meant networking was so easy and fun to do. You got to talk to other students about your different projects and you got to talk to academics in the field who gave many different ‘do’s and don’ts’. Three days flew by and you were left feeling both exhausted and excited. There is hope to get that PhD done, or at least you can email one of those academics and beg for an RA position.


-UPDATE- Additional information available in the recent Psychobabble podcast below.


I also received an anonymous post that adds some additional insight into the conference experience.

Conferences are an exercise in self-punishment. You have to present a respectable image because when you attend a conference you are representing not only yourself, but your advisors, your university, and your discipline. Your respectability is judged by your presence at talks and the quality of your questions. This behaviour conflicts with the image you present after 5pm on each conference day, where you will socialize with other attendees, drink with attendees, go to dinner with attendees (and drink some more), before heading out for more drinks. What results the next morning is a delicate balance between maintaining both a respectable image and consciousness (or even suppressing your vomit reflex).

While (IMO) it's imperative you attend as many talks as you can, you can, of course, decide not to drink as much as you can. But who would want to do that...?
If you have an interesting psychology conference experience you wish to share, or if you are interested in writing an article for the UQ Psyc Blog, send me an email at dustinvenini (at) gmail (dot) com



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

We're Back !!

Hello all. I’ve had this blog bookmarked for ages and after noticing it had been reduced to a barren wasteland I was finally pushed over the breaking point and actually sat down and wrote something. It was a long time coming, as this blog contributed directly to me being in the position I am now and I felt that the least I could do was contribute. UQ Psych Blog is back!!

My name is Dustin Venini and I am at the very early stages of the psychology journey after a minor detour of a decade or so away from the university life. I decided to do things a little differently when I came back to undergrad this time around. I immediately hounded anyone related to cognitive psychology I could toss an email at, with hopes of getting involved in research from the beginning. It was a tactic met with the full spectrum of responses, from enthusiasm to silence. Despite this apparently unorthodox approach, persistence paid off in the end.

For any other undergrads who may be reading this I can’t overstate the positive impact of this decision. Not only was I able to become involved, and continue to be involved, in numerous research projects, but I have also met many amazing people and listened to even more of them lead discussions on some of the most fascinating topics I’ve ever encountered.

So here’s to hoping for a little spark to bring this blog back to life. Maybe I’ll provide some insight to the world of psychology at UQ from a different perspective. Be sure to leave some feedback and hopefully we can bring some old writers back and introduce more newcomers along the way. Cheers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Velcome again, Meester Bond. . .

Not really. Hi all, and welcome back to the Psych Blog!

Having finished number crunching, I have immediately proceeded to launch myself into testing for Experiment 3. Discouragingly, most of the first-year students in summer semester have not been properly imbued with the fear of not getting their research credit, and thus aren't signing up in droves to my wonderfully exciting and mind-expanding pre-experiment 3 experiment (read: surveys).

Hence, I've had time to take stock in between testing sessions and have a wee bit of R&R. Which it seems I needed rather badly. I liken the process to exercising to the point where you no longer realise that you're exhausted, and the moment you stop your body ceases to be a body and becomes some form of semi-rigid amoeba. Who then oozes onto the nearest couch/bed and proceeds to become immobile for the next little while. The important thing here is that your thinking organ needs time to rest too, even if you don't think you need it. Leaping from one task to the next at lightspeed may work for some, but I suspect such people are in the minority.

In my case, I've simply taken a few shorter days and have let myself sleep in. It's one thing to relax, it's another entirely to stop working, after all! A few rather amusing souls suggested that the Psych Christmas Party would be a wonderful way to relax, to which I silently laughed. Social occasions are even more exhausting than your standard statistics analysis, as far as I'm concerned. Fun, but exhausting.

Interestingly, I suspect I've also become a workaholic in the past few weeks; in the past I would get home and eagerly leap to my computer and access whatever computer game/screen-based insanity that had captured my interest. Nowadays though, I just get bored. I come into uni most weekends, not because I have crazy amounts of work to do but because I'm simply bored. Of course, it could also be that I've gone mad. The fact that I started listening to Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone' and actually liking it may attest to this possibility. I may lose the respect of friends and colleagues for admitting that, however.

I shall return after Christmas (of which I hope you have a merry one, naturally), where I shall continue to babble about life in PhD-land!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Onwards, PhD!

Welcome again ladies and gentlemen to this blog!

You may have noticed the blogs have been coming fortnightly rather than weekly. This is mainly because I've had a fair chunk of work to do and writing a blog at the end of a day is slightly less appealing than going home, having a hot strong cup of tea and a dose of Gaming Therapy. Hence, fortnightly posts. Hope you don't mind too much :)

So, what's been happening? More of the stats stuff that I mentioned in my last blogpost. In fact, that's pretty much been my life for the past little while. Alas this isn't entirely the fun stuff, this is the rather painful monotonous stuff. It's taken me what feels like an age; it's one of those tasks that you just know will take forever the first time you do it, but when you do it for the second/third/etc time you'll kick yourself that it ever took any time at all, first time round.

As always, there are silver linings, some thinner than others. I have discovered a new genre of music that I rather like, I have listened to a number of podcasts, not to mention the truly heroic speed with which I seem to type and the skills in SPSS and Excel that I had to teach myself while doing these tasks.

So really, the stuff I learned is the prize of these tasks. I can do some pretty fancy shenanigans in SPSS and Excel now; I have slowly honed my work ethic for long tiring tasks, and so forth. And really, these things are just as the (perhaps more vaunted) skills such as concise writing, public speaking skills and so forth that a PhD requires on the surface. I have no doubt that they'll be of use for a long time to come.

See you next fortnight!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

And multiple analyses later. . .

When the Matrix becomes real, I will find the SPSS program within its intricate pathways. I will then proceed to initiate mortal combat with this program; not that crappy real-life Dragon Ball Z nonsense from Matrix 3, but the good ole' fashioned fisticuffs from the first movie. Overcoats, sunglasses, hilarious numbers of guns, the works.

And I shall dance upon it's pixelated corpse with giddy abandon.

Now, this might seem a bit strong, and indeed it is. I have been doing outlier data cleaning for 3 data sets for the past few days, and the problem is that in the literature that we're working off, everybody has their own method of dealing with outliers. Some researchers ignore them entirely, others delete them, others replace them with a 2.5 standard deviation cutoff. Even worse, some determine outliers within-participants, within-conditions or sometimes both. Owing to the high likelihood that a fellow psycholinguist will review our paper come submission, we decided it was a good idea to cover all the bases in case they ask why we didn't manage outliers in (x) fashion.

Cue 13 different outlier cleaning processes, over 3 data sets. Every possible relevant permutation of the process to be performed on each dataset.

Predictably, I have reached the point where I no longer believe that I and my beloved Apple Mac are separate beings. I think we've become some sort of Deus Ex Machina, albeit in the narrow field of number crunching. I think it simply is aware of my intentions and reacts accordingly; I could probably use two chopsticks instead of a mouse and keyboard and still create the desired SPSS commands. I may eventually nickname it 'Skynet' and welcome the end of humanity.

I am of course inflating the issue for the sake of comedy and a good read. The work is not hard, nor is it particularly urgent. I've set myself a deadline for the end of the week, mainly in order to give myself a semblance of motivation beyond that transmitted through caffeine-based products. It is a reminder that not all work in a PhD is gloriously interesting, mind-expanding stuff. Occasionally you do have to engage in exercises of pure tedium with the promise of a reward at the end, which in my case is a conference I hope to go to next year overseas, as well as the publication that will come out of this work.

My new master/Sith Lord/computer program calls to me to resume crafting the syntax that will deal with analysis no. 3. If anyone hears 'EXTERMINATE' or sounds of death rays coming from my office, worry not - it's all been ethically approved. See you next week!


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

And so here we are again!

It has been a relatively sedate fortnight since my last post; some data analysis has been done, some writing done, and I have re-developed a few hobbies outside university life that might indeed result in me seeing the light of day this decade, and may even result in physical exercise. Yep, those are airborne animals of the porcine genus you're seeing, and that is indeed the yelping of frost-bitten devils you're hearing. All against the glorious backdrop of a cyan-coloured moon.

The data for my second experiment has not turned out to be all it can be, unfortunately; our main hypothesis wasn't entirely supported. Luckily, Experiment 2 is essentially a supplemental to Experiment 1, so it can still be used albeit in a reduced form. Painful, but such is life in academia, and frankly if odd data is the worst of my troubles I am going quite well.

So now we're on to Experiment 3, which can hopefully be completed within a month or two, provided the Summer Semester victims *ahem* participants are obliging with their volunteering for testing. I will spare you the precise aims of this 3-experiment project for the next blog, as I'm still wrapping my head around all the wee bits and pieces that go into the evidence that I'm working with.

Handily, the first part of experiment 3 is on its way to completion; the online surveys I posted a few weeks back were Part 1 of this endeavour, and many obliging souls have submitted to the psycho-linguistic probings within. Once the data is compiled and subjected to the various statistical tortures I will turn to performing the main gristle of the experiment, which is the final experiment of my first project.

All this is in aim of getting a paper out ASAP so I have something material for confirmation, as said event is beginning to loom like a disapproving bouncer in an ill-fitting suit. And ye, verily is the metaphorical pepper spray being reached for.

Waxing lyrical aside, that's all for today and the next post shall regale you with the theories behind Lexical Selection, Picture-Word Interference and so forth (shorter version: The field I'm sticking my neck into). Hope this is a good read, and see you next time!


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A good life, this one.

Well, the semester is over, as is both my marking and testing.

In the academic parlance, I am well and truly buggered.

This will probably be a shorter post than my usual verbose linguistic gushings, as I am frankly very tired. All in all, I have had one hell of a fun semester. I have had my first tutoring experience; terrifying, but it's the first time I've ever really given a formal education, and it's quite the fun thing to do. Actually engaging with students who trust you to provide accurate information is one seriously motivating experience.

I've also managed to run two experiments, one of which was only partly successful (see my lengthy whinge/blog posts prior to this), and have learned valuable lessons about time management, data analysis and maintaining a level head when pressured. Not to mention that working too hard really does catch up to you. So in short, I shall provide an end-of-semester surmise: PhD life really rocks. In the whole time I've been a PhD candidate (since March 1st), I've enjoyed almost every day of it. Not bad for work satisfaction, methinks.

As of writing this I'm planning to go home rather early and sleep for quite possibly 24 hours straight, so I shall leave things here. I hope that life treats you all well, and I shall return next week with yet PhD life goodies!


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Marking Malaise

I've become quite unfamiliar with the concept of natural light over the past week or so. While I desperately attempt to maintain the illusion that I am as devastatingly attractive as ever, I have a strong suspicion that I have become some kind of Gollum-like creature of slightly more palatable personality.

There are two reasons for this. The first, as documented last week, is the requirement of testing new participants. This is becoming tricky, as first-years are almost finished their term and thus are in short supply. Luckily, there are other means of gathering participants, and so work continues apace in this regard. Alas, at the current juncture there is little else to report, as all I can do is wait for participants to sign up. Although, I have recently launched a pair of surveys that are a precursor to my third experiment; shameless of me, but if you could take one (and only one) of them, I would be most grateful :)

The second reason is marking. The second round of assignments has struck and we the tutors have responded, and responded with vigor. That is, we have complained, vacillated and generally procrastinated for quite some time before hooking into the marking. What followed was many days of my good self sitting at my computer, listening to a combination of trance music and symphonic heavy metal while peering myopically at the latest lab report to batter itself against the crumbling edifice of my sanity and work ethic. This process continues, and probably will for a few days yet.

I won't say marking is fun. It's a challenge, as marking isn't necessarily easy due mostly to my lack of experience. I also tend to take longer than is necessary as I give a lot of feedback. Mostly I take such time because I remember receiving feedback on assignments which didn't always help, and I wasn't the best undergrad in the first place. Of course on top of that you do actually have to fail people. I'll avoid blithering on about that because this post is already sounding something like a whinge.

Let's tag marking as 'an experience', in the full knowledge that sooner or later, a proper emotional tag will become available to describe what sort of experience it is. Although for the record, it's a nice feeling to occasionally tunnel-vision to the extent where the outside world becomes less than a passing thought for hours on end.

And now, as lovely as writing this blog is, I must return to said marking with all haste, as the deadline looms (as only deadlines can). Next week, I shall hopefully return with more news of my experiments and experiences! Until then, may your learning never cease.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's only funny when it happens to someone else.

Welcome once again to the fetid den of iniquity that is my blog-post, dear readers. As I mentioned last week, I have been conducting analyses on my second experiment, and progress could be called 'rocky'.

Well, if last week was rocky, it is now firmly ensconced in the Himalayas. Initially, I had performed an analysis of my data while eliminating outliers above and below certain thresholds across all participants and conditions. Statistical significance was achieved after this cleaning was done. However, based on previous research we also deleted outliers based on standard deviations of each participant. Statistical significance vanished.

Now, understand that before all this, I had forgotten to perform some of the most basic and elementary forms of data cleaning known to psychology before doing an analysis. I was feeling like a bit of a fool.

It transpired that certain participants had data that did not make the slightest bit of sense; reaction times that were unfeasible, etc, and were placing rather large spanners in the works of the data. Being the overenthusiastic (and also perhaps cerebrally-challenged) lad that I was, I had not noticed this. My supervisor did, and drew it to my attention. Having received this information, I proceeded to pummel my own head into nearby solid objects located in my office. To forget to deal with outliers, AND to forget to observe individual means (a lesson I was taught in no uncertain terms by my Honours supervisor) is an impressive brain failure, I thought. As a quick aside, I am my own worst critic when it comes to my career. These days, I am unforgiving (perhaps to a fault) when it comes to mistakes such as the aforementioned.

Generally I avoid directly giving advice in this blog, as I prefer people to take whatever insight they wish from the posts (e.g. "why are they allowing this coffee-addicted nutcase into the sunlight?"). However, I will say this; it's not in your interest to be an unforgiving disciplinarian when you make mistakes. The PhD learning curve is a steep one, and if you continue in academia it apparently doesn't shallow out that often. Mentally injuring yourself simply hamstrings your ability to learn from your mistakes. It's also why your supervisor is there; they're good at this stuff. My supervisor has been in academia for almost two decades. I have been a PhD student for 8 months. When I took the data to him, he saw the problem after a few minutes of perusal and basic analysis. Go figure.

The outcome of all this is that I must return to testing, both replacing the faulty data (and finding out how it happened) and expanding the sample size. The rest of the week is filled with testing schedules and importing the new data. Lessons have been learned, shoulders squared, heads un-pummeled and egos deflated (at least a little . . . :D), and the science goes on! See you next week, when hopefully I have new results to speak of!


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Houston, we have a problem.

Keen observers may have noticed that last Friday, a gigantic letter 'F' materialised over the SBS building, accompanied by flocks of birds leaving trees, spontaneous gonging of church bells, and shattered windows throughout the UQ campus.

This was because my data analysis had not gone as planned.

Subsequent to unleashing the linguistic beast that was my stream of profanity (read: giant man tantrum), I girded myself and got back to work. It's tempting at times like this to emotionally flagellate yourself for not seeing the issue beforehand, for feeling like a fool etc etc. It is important to remember that a PhD student is the merest babe in the academic world, superior only to the academic zygote that is an Honours student, and you will make mistakes on occasion.

So let's talk a bit about precisely what happened.

My experiments at present are purely behavioural, and utilise a MatLab program to present stimulus. The program records reaction times and outputs that to two separate files, one of which is nicely formatted to be imported into Excel and SPSS. This particular file did not write properly for some reason, and I realised I would have to go through each file individually and import the data trial by trial. That's 360 trials per participant, for 20 participants.

It was at this moment I felt a bizarre and yet entirely understandable urge to strap my beloved Apple computer to the front of some archaic cannon, and then fire said cannon at the laptop utilised in the experiment. This did not occur; I suspect the Psych department frowns upon wanton destruction that is not ethically approved. The lesson here is to test the hell out of any program that is so central to your experiment, and to ensure that it works EXACTLY as needed before you hurl participants at it.

The silver lining is that despite having to spend many hours at my computer manually importing data (a task to melt the brain of the most devoted of nerds), I also managed to catch up on listening to about 4 different podcasts, as well as several hours of my favourite music. So it's not all bad. Once the red mist had cleared, I realised that I should see the whole episode not as an illustration of my own foolishness, but as an experience for future experiments. I also learned that under no circumstances do you go to Merlos and request 'a coffee so strong you could waterproof an ocean liner with it'. They take that seriously. You will electrocute small insects if you drink it, and your brain will fizzle into some kind of homogenous neural goo.

As of writing this, I am at the SPSS analysis stage of this experiment, and the subject of next week's blog will be the results of this analysis, and what it means for my PhD. As always, I hope I have presented a good/informative read, and I shall see you all next week!


Monday, October 3, 2011

Data analysis and life

And ye, verily did the hordes of students return to the hallowed grounds of UQ, and mightily did we curse as lines at the Refectory and Merlos did lengthen accordingly.

This week, I find myself preparing for data analysis, and thus I shall write about it as well.

There are many different words and phrases for data analysis in the sciences. For instance: 'A love affair with statistics packages', 'Listening to music while attempting to break your keyboard', or more simply 'being a COLOSSAL nerd'. Any and all of the above are appropriate. The funny thing about it is that should you have any passion for science, you'll find yourself strangely immersed in not only entering the data, but then running each successive analysis, reviewing the results, interpreting said results and so forth.

It can feel like an anticlimax; you've worked and experimented (for weeks, months or perhaps even years) and now you have this great pile of data that you have to compile and work into something understandable. Not for yourself, as you should hopefully know already what you're doing. But going from having that data to creating a story that is understandable and interesting to other people is a skill, and the entire process is both a privilege and a pleasure. That's not to say it's not stressful and difficult as hell, as it certainly can be. Sometimes things won't go according to plan and you will wish to create a fist-sized and -shaped hole in your computer screen and the wall behind it (much to the shock of the inhabitants of the next room). You will almost certainly have a few late nights in the office. In spite of (and perhaps because of) this, it's totally worth it.

I personally doubt that many of us do this because it's a challenge. I certainly don't. It is absolutely a challenge, and I am expected to run experiments, to publish, etc. But as one of the senior academics said earlier this year, academia is/should be as much a vocation as anything else. So I do it because I love it, and the aforementioned necessities just serve as to legitimise the whole affair as a job.

Interestingly, people look at me funny from time to time and say 'but PhD's make no money' or even more amusingly 'that sounds so boring!'. Regarding money, it's cliche but I'd vastly prefer to do a job I enjoy rather than one that paid well, assuming I had to choose. I once tried working in an office job that paid well. I lasted 4 weeks before my brain melted out one ear from boredom. As for a PhD being boring, each to their own.

I have gone from talking about data analysis to a discussion of my perspectives on PhD's. Rather amusing shift, but I hope it proves enjoyable/interesting/informative nonetheless. I am off to finalise an Ethics proposal, so I shall see you all next week!


Friday, September 30, 2011

Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Students

Last week was Graduate Student Week here at UQ. Across the week the UQ graduate school organized a number of presentations, workshops, and panel discussions to help UQ RHD students make the most of their time as a research student. As an aspiring graduate student, I decided to attend a workshop titled 'The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Student'.

Running the session was Maria Gardiner maximizing performance in high achieving groups like PhD students and academics. She presented hints and tips, based on research, which can help PhD students work productively during their candidature and finish on time.

It seems I am not the only one keen to unlock the secrets of a successful PhD. Earlier this year secret number 1 – The Care and Maintenance of your Adviser was published in the journal Nature. That’s right, although we may at times think it is our supervisor’s responsibility to guide their student, it is just as much a student’s responsibility to ensure that they are well guided through their PhD.

So how do we go about getting the most out of our student-supervisor relationship? Here are some tips/ideas that were presented in the workshop and also in the article. 1. Ask for help - We often think that we are high in the priorities of our supervisors and that they know when we need help. Supervisors think that when their student needs help they will come and ask. Therefore, if you need help, you need to go and ask. If you are waiting for your supervisor to read your mind you could be waiting a very long while.

2. Meet regularly - The very most important factor that predicts timely completion of a PhD is regular meetings. This should be one-on-one time set aside to talk with your supervisor about matters relating to your current research. Regular meetings should not be avoided … even if you feel like you haven’t gotten anywhere since last meeting. This may be a sign that you need some direction to get back on track. We all know our supervisors are super busy people but given the value of meeting regularly, it is something all research students should attempt to attain/maintain.

3. Get as much as you can out of your supervisor meetings - To get the most out of meetings, make an agenda. This will ensure that you cover all of the things that you planned to cover and that you don’t get side-tracked (and if you do it will help you get back on the point). A bit before the meeting (a day or 2 before) make a list of points that you want to cover in the meeting and e-mail them over to your supervisor. You can also print out a copy for you and a copy for your supervisor and hand it to them at the start of the meeting. This will provide a framework for the meeting and help the meeting stay on track, stop you forgetting things you meant to ask and stop you from deciding not to ask things that you really need to know because you might ‘feel silly’ asking.

4. Be on the same page as your supervisor - After meetings you should e-mail your supervisor with a few dot points of what you are going to do (and maybe what they are going to do) now based on the outcomes of your meeting. They should be specific e.g. "I will write method section of paper X". So that you and your supervisor can see you are both on the same page (and so they can gently direct you back on track if you were misguided). Writing down the outcomes of each meeting and what needs to be done also makes you feel accountable for the jobs you have to do before your next meeting.

So go forth and take responsibility for getting the help you need from your supervisor.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M. (2011). The care and maintenance of your adviser. Nature, 469, 570.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Congrats Matthew B Thompson

So I just saw this on Facebook:

My translation of this is that my good friend, colleague and collaborator, regular UQ Psyc Blog blogger, and illusionist, Matthew Thompson has just won the Australasian Three Minute Thesis Competition. I know this has required a huge effort on Matt's behalf for more reasons than are obvious, so it's a huge credit to him, and also his main advisor Jason Tangen.

Well done, Matt, we're lucky to have you around!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thinking about talking

It is the holidays, apparently. For many postgrads this reads as 'work time where one does not teach'. For a PhD student, the concept of holidays is largely a self-directed process. It is perfectly legitimate to wake at 11am on a Monday and simply declare 'to hell with my work today' and spend the entire day in one's pyjamas . . . possibly writing a blog post or two (Note: I didn't actually do this, but the idea is a logical one).

Of course, provided your work ethic is not a withered broken husk that feeds upon guilt and shame (not to get too self-referential or anything) then you probably will come and work. For myself, this means experiments. Speaking of experiments, I mentioned that I would be doing so this blog around, and thus I shall avoid linguistically opening fire on the injustice of working during the holidays, and proceed with something more interesting. Potentially more dry, but just as interesting. At least, as far as I'm concerned it is, and I'm the important one in this relationship :)

The basic experimental design I use at the moment is called the Picture-Word Interference Paradigm, or PWI. Very simply, it is the presentation of a picture, with a word. The task is to identify the picture as quickly as possible. It's my kind of thing; gloriously simple and yet, when properly manipulated, can give you a true world of information to sink one's metaphorical chompers into.

We're using this design to work out how people select words to put into speech. True to form in the sciences, this is not nearly as simple as it sounds. It turns out there's quite a few stages in the speech process. You have a semantic/conceptual stage, where concepts are abstract representations without words or meaning attached (There is research to suggest that concepts are actually complex sensory representations). You then have a lexical stage, where the concept is attached to a kind of grammatical code, called a lemma. Then it gets actual sounds attached to it at the phonological stage, at which point we think it gets forwarded to motor areas to be turned into processes for your vocal cords etc. to deal with. And of course all this happens after your low-level visual processes have gone through and dealt with the basic properties of what you perceive.

Essentially the PWI throws a cognitive spanner in the works; by varying the relationship between the picture and word (sometimes the word is related to the picture, sometimes not), we can determine the process/structure by which we select words and meanings. Happily, in recent years there have been a few papers that generated an almighty stink amongst the researchers of speech production and thus new research is most welcome to try and resolve matters to some extent, which is what I'm aiming to do.

Speaking of which, my work ethic awakens with a roar and a snarl, and so I should get back into it. See you next week!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The journey begins. . .

Hello! My name is Harrison Vieth, and I’m a PhD candidate in Psychology. I study language production, specifically the nature of lexical access. While my ego requests, nay demands that I continue with an exposition about how wonderfully accomplished and amazing I am (feel free to insert sniggers as you see fit) what I shall instead write of is a general account of an ordinary day in the PhD life.

Having awoken to discover that I’d had roughly 4 hours of sleep, (due in part to not being able to sleep, but also due to an obsession with a certain video game or two) the immediate concern is the acquisition of coffee. If you saw some disheveled, semi-zombified homunculus of a 20-something year-old shambling about the SBS building or at Merlos last Thursday, that was almost certainly me. As you might be able to tell, I love coffee to an amount that many regard as being slightly concerning if not at a clinical significance just yet.

At the moment, I have several deadlines to meet. The first and most powerful is a marking deadline. I tutor a second-year course, and the first set of assignments has returned and thus we tutors must nose-to-the-grindstone and mark. For the more painfully capable tutors *coughNoniecough* this is the course of a weekend's work. For those of us far less practiced, it takes a week or so, especially given I have a near OCD-like tendency to go back and check things. Over, and over. . . .and over again. While I am told this is a normal symptom of New Tutor Syndrome, it's still painful. Still, the pleasure one gets from tutoring outweighs this, for the most part, save when one must resist the consequent urge to take some kind of non-lethal firearm to my next tutorial in order to more forcefully educate the philistine undergrads in my care of the finer points of concision and clear writing. Of course, I wrote some shockers in my undergrad career and thus my rampant hypocrisy remains checked for the foreseeable future.

I'm also designing my third experiment, still in its infancy as a result of tutor deadlines looming. The nature of the behavioural experiments I run (to be the subject of the next blog post) requires a great deal of fine-tuning the stimulus, and thus this week and the following week will be finalising that. While it does sound like most of what I do involves sitting in front of a computer screen, it's just as tiring in many ways as any other activity, and also just as fulfilling.

Alas, the candle burns down and I must return to my marking, but fear not (if you were afeared in the first place), I shall almost certainly write again in the near future about any number of things, including experimental testing, data analysis, and the various legal proceedings involved in rationalizing a marking-based psychotic breakdown.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PhD Tips and Tricks (or learning from others' experience)

The first day of Spring just passed us by, meaning a number of post-grads have recently notched up their first semester and a bit of PhD life. As with any other new undertaking a lot of lessons have been learned by the fledgling PhDs. The student-led Social Lab Group decided to create somewhat of a repository for recently enrolled PhDs, comprising both the lessons we learnt and some useful tips for surviving your first semester.

I'll preface the list by saying the tips seem to fall into two (maybe one) broad categories; 1) DO THESE THINGS ESPECIALLY IF THEY SCARE YOU, and 2) USE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY TO TRICK YOURSELF INTO BEING PRODUCTIVE.

  • Conduct your first study as soon as possible, and definitely before you feel ready.
  • Make yourself accountable by creating small goals and deadlines and announcing them to your advisor or scheduling meetings on their due date. It's not your advisor's responsibility to harass you about this, but simply telling them of what you plan to accomplish by X date or Y meeting can be a good motivator.
  • If you're looking to wrap up a meeting, taking a moment to summarise the key points out loud is both an effective hint and it makes you look totally engaged and on top of things.
  • Visit the journal websites to sign up to their free email notifications for new issues.
  • When reading a newly released journal article that appears to have completely and perfectly investigated your PhD topic, you should print it out and get out your angry highlighter and big red pen and lay into it. Identifying what the authors in their incomparable stupidity have failed to look at, control for, or explain is not only very therapeutic, but will help you realise that a) you still have a contribution to make, and b) people care about the topic you're researching!
  • Get in as much writing practice as you can. If you don't have any data of your own to write up, your advisor will definitely have some data somewhere (e.g., old honours student data) that they would be happy for you to cut your teeth on. The best of this is that your lack of emotional investment in the dataset will make the inevitable and crushing rejection substantially less crushing.
  • Look for potential paper collaborations as a 3rd or later author. Providing comments - even doing substantial editing - on a draft initially written by someone else is by far less exhausting than starting from a blank page.
  • Encourage, accept and laugh (as applicable) at criticism you receive. If someone is giving you honest and constructive criticism, that means they care enough about your work (yay!) and want to help you improve it (double-yay!). By seeking out criticism you are seeking out opportunities to improve your work and your understanding.
  • It is important to note that as a PhD student you are in research training, and are not expected to have all the answers. You are in research training, and not expected to have all the answers. You are not the exception to this expectation.
  • Tutoring is great for you. It allows you to develop presentation experience, deal with left-field questions, work on explanations for that much-venerated "intelligent but non-specialist audience", hone your time management skills, and pays well. You should do it at least once during your PhD, the earlier the better.
  • Force yourself to present wherever possible. Say "yes" to things like lab group, 3 minute thesis, RHD-Day, and conferences. When someone asks you "what do you do", use that opportunity to hone your 30-second version (and your self-control when they follow up with "so why does that matter?").
  • Attend conferences, summer schools, small group meetings (mini-conferences), seminars, lab groups and coffee dates wherever possible. The importance of your peers' and colleagues' contributions to your work, whether formally or informally, cannot be overstated. They can ask uncomfortable questions, point out flaws, grant blinding insight, listen to you whinge, and order another bottle of wine. How invaluable!

So, on behalf of the students from the Social Lab Group, I hope you can take something away from this post that helps you at some point during your candidature.

Feel free to add any of your own tips and tricks in the comments :)


Friday, July 8, 2011

Not tricks, Michael, illusions.

I have to share this amazing visual illusion with you.

Sean Murphy, an honours student in our lab, was playing around with some faces for an experiment. He aligned the faces at the eyes and then started flicking through them. He was shocked by the ugly faces staring back at him.

We called it the Flashed Face Distortion Effect. But we don’t yet know what causes it.

The effect might have something to do with relative encoding. That is, forcing people to encode each face in light of the others. By eye-aligning the faces, it becomes much easier to compare their shape and the relative location of their features, so the differences between them become more evident. And it’s most certainly related to work on adaptation, and the face distortion after effect specifically.

You can read more about it here and request a copy of the paper here. I hope you find the effect as jaw-dropping as I do!


Tangen, J. M., Murphy, S., & Thompson, M. B. (2011). Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces. Perception advance online publication, doi:10.1068/p6968

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking responsibility for your professional development

The price of greatness is responsibility

- Winston Churchill

As PhD students our primary focus often tends to be on final products and bottom lines. We ruminate about what the thesis will be like, how to get more publications, and other external indicators of quality. In this pursuit of end goals, it can be easy to lose sight of other important factors in our education, like professional development. By professional development I mean things that don’t necessarily contribute to the final product of the thesis or a particular publication, but that contribute overall to making us better researchers. Like the famous quote goes: it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important.

There are many ways to develop as a researcher. It may involve learning new statistical or methodological skills, or attending workshops, conferences and summer schools (which I’ve posted about previously). Whatever the form of professional development, I believe the key is that students take responsibility for their own development trajectory. While a lucky few people may benefit from a supervisor who goes out of their way to mentor, guide, and shape them as a member of the research community, not everyone can expect such treatment. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us individually to take advantage of development opportunities where they exist and create them for ourselves where they don’t.

At UQ we’re very lucky to have an environment that supports professional development. Weekly seminars for RHD (Research Higher Degree) students are run on topics as varied as advancing statistical know-how to time management and achieving work-life balance. We also have an annual RHD day that celebrates the research of postgraduate students and offers an opportunity to present in front of a friendly audience.

But there are also countless opportunities for professional development outside your research institution. Attendance at conferences is an absolute must. Not only do you get great ideas from hearing others talk, there are often round-table discussions or pre-conferences dedicated to key professional development topics. Consider travel in and of itself as a professional development opportunity. There is something about seeing the processes of different labs that broadens your research perspective. Not to mention the opportunity to discuss your research with people who know nothing about it.

Oftentimes professional development requires stepping outside your comfort zone. It involves putting yourself in a position of admitting that you don’t know everything. Developing often means talking to and asking advice from people who scare you a little. Don’t forget that the benefits of professional development – that make you a better, more connected and impactful researcher – will ultimately far outweigh the temporary discomfort of putting yourself out there. The key thing to remember is that only you are truly responsible for your professional development. It’s through this responsibility that we can each achieve our own modest form of greatness.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Healthy Skepticism

In my last post I told you about some of my research on crime-scene fingerprint identification. Turns out that it’s actually a human, not a computer, who decides whether a crime-scene print matches a suspect or not. To make a decision, examiners place prints side-by-side, visually inspect them, and declare that the prints match or not, based on their training and experience.

The problem is that, even though fingerprints have been used in criminal courts for more than 100 years, no properly controlled experiments on fingerprint examiners' accuracy in identifying perpetrators had been conducted. Some experts have even claimed to be infallible, but mistakes made to date have resulted in innocent people being wrongly accused.

We wanted to find out whether these experts were any more accurate than the average person, and to get an idea of how many criminals are being wrongly set free and how many innocents are being wrongly convicted. Well, it took two years of planning and a visit to every major state police department in Australia, but we finally managed to conduct the critical experiment.

We gave 37 qualified fingerprint experts and 37 UQ students pairs of fingerprints to examine and decide whether a simulated crime-scene print matched a potential suspect or not. Some of the print pairs belonged to the "criminal" while others were highly similar but actually belonged to an "innocent" person.

The experts correctly matched just over 92 percent of the prints to the criminal. But, they mistakenly matched 0.68 percent of the prints to the innocent person. That they made so few errors means pretty impressive human performance, in my opinion.

We concluded that qualified court-practicing fingerprint experts are exceedingly accurate compared to novices, but are not infallible. Our experts tended to err on the side of caution by making errors that would free the guilty rather than convict the innocent. Even so, they made the kind of error that may lead to false convictions.

So, was my initial skepticism unwarranted?

Well, I think healthy skepticism is the cornerstone of science and rational enquiry. Fingerprint examiners make important decisions that can put lives and livelihoods at risk and the burden of proof is on the profession to demonstrate the scientific validity and reliability of its claims. We’ve worked closely with examiners, who were were eager to demonstrate their abilities, and we’ve shown that expertise with prints provides a real benefit.

Even though this one experiment consumed my existence for two years, it was totally worth it!


Tangen, J. M., Thompson, M. B., & McCarthy D. J. (2011). Identifying Fingerprint Expertise. Psychological Science. [PDF] [Press Release]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Finding the One

Popular culture instils in us the belief that for everybody there is someone out there for them. That perfect person. That one in a million. It is a romantic notion and if we succeed in finding that ‘perfect one’ we are offered the promise of endless happiness and fulfilment. Unfortunately finding ‘the one’ is not easy. It can be a path of uncertainly, the right way to go is often obscured and wise men agree that we must be patient in our pursuit. In some ways this reflects how I feel about my quest for the perfect PhD topic.

I never had my heart set on any particular occupation. As I went through high school I felt with each passing year that my interests were becoming more focused, but selecting which course to study at uni was a long and difficult process. I finally decided to study psychology and that decision kept me focused and busy until last year when I realised that I would again be faced with another of those momentous life altering decisions. What now?

So I applied for graduate jobs and contemplated whether or not I should do a masters where I could put the thing things I had learned to good use by helping people in the ‘real world’. I even considered going abroad, but something about the buzz you get from conducting research, finding out things that no one before you has ever known and coming to understand what it is to be human kept me here at uni working in research.

So now that research has taken my fancy, it seems that the natural next step is to do a PhD. By many accounts, however, it seems that the world of academia is ultra competitive and cut throat and as a PhD student you only a few short years to stand out above a field of already tall poppies. It is also a long time and a lot of work to spend on something that you don’t love.

With this in mind, I want to find my one in a million - my perfect topic. Just like the path to true love, the path to the perfect PhD topic remains uncertain. In some ways I know that I may never find ‘the one’ and that I may grow to love another nice topic (but a girl can still dream can’t she?). Even though the perfect topic remains elusive, the quest through the maze has lead me to explore new ideas, try new techniques and meet new people and for now that isn’t so bad.

- Belinda

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Psychology: More than just listening!

The first part of my post today is about understanding what psychology is. Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour, and I think many people (including myself) often forget the variety of ways in which this field can be studied.

Most people I meet outside of psychology a) think I mean clinical psychology when I say I study psychology b) don’t know you can do research in psychology and c) assume by research I mean give people surveys about their feelings.

Most students who I meet in psychology either aren’t interested in or don’t know about research. Generally they get into a bachelor of psychology to become a clinical psychologist. I can’t blame them for this, as I had no idea what a degree in psychology might lead to when I started. It was only in 3rd and 4th year that I began to understand a little about psychology research, and how fascinating it could be.

So most people don’t really understand how varied ‘psychology’ can be. However, even those who realise this tend to be interested in one area, and dismissive of others. They don’t realise how related these areas can be, and suffer from the opposite problem – they understand how varied psychology is, to the point of thinking of each area as a separate entity!

There are a lot of different people who end up studying ‘psychology’, and many of those aren’t happy with all the ‘sciencey-stuff’ they have to learn on the way to becoming a practitioner. Or in my case, unhappy with all the ‘people-stuff’ learnt on the way to studying brains. But each part of psychology can help inform others, and generally you can find a way that it applies to the area you’re most interested in. For example, child psychologists need to understand how adults work to see where the child would normally be heading. Organisational psychologists benefit from the latest research in how our attention works in particular settings. Clinical psychologists should be aware of the latest brain imaging studies regarding their patient’s conditions. And what is the use of doing all this theoretical and technical brain research if not to inform practical work? Neuropsychologists need to be aware of current practice to ensure their work is covering the important issues.

It really excites me when I find a student who is interested in research. It even excites me when I find a student who has HEARD that you can do research in psychology! And I think this side of psychology should be more publicised, with all the amazing and varied things that it can offer. Psychology isn’t just for people who want to help others, it’s for those interested in how people work, respond, feel, think, move, and react (and I’m yet to meet someone not interested in at least one of these aspects of humans). It ranges from how children’s sense of self develops, why crowds react in anger, how gamers' skills transfer, where in the brain emotions are processed, to when vision and auditory signals interact.

If you’re interested in learning how people work, consider taking a look at psychology, but don’t rule it all out if you don’t like the first thing you see, because there is so much on offer!


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The results are in, and I got nothing!

Many moons ago, eager to impress and to rise above the clatter of all the other undergrads, I started looking for RA work. I kept my expectations low. I expected that as an untrained, unqualified undergrad I'd be doing menial grunt work. I was not disappointed. I spent three weeks coding videos for specific behaviours of couples arguing in the lab. It was depressing. I walked away feeling like a bad boyfriend, but relieved that everyone fights about the same thing - money, sex and alcohol.

Despite my inauspicious introduction to the world of experimental psychology I knew what I wanted to do. Not too long later I was asked by the professor running the study if I wanted to take the lead on a bigger, more involved study.

He (and his colleague) hypothesized that a thing called Executive Function would beneficially assist men in impressing women. Executive Function, essentially, is your ability to inhibit certain behaviours. It's a very high level cognitive capacity, and relates to all kinds of things, like delayed gratification and being a successful social agent. However, Executive Function (or 'Ego Depletion') is a finite resource. A classic study involving this phenomena involved putting participants in a waiting room with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (or a bowl of radishes) and permitting them to either a) eat some, or b) not eat any. Afterwards, participants from both conditions were asked to persist on some impossible problem solving task. Those who were tempted but barred from eating the warm, fresh cookies persisted for far less time than those who were allowed to eat the cookies, or those who were allowed (or not allowed) to eat the unappealing radishes.

Executive Function is more than just not eating a cookie, though. It's you inhibiting the urge to punch your boss when he screws you over, it's inhibiting sexual desire and action in inappropriate circumstances or with inappropriate people (i.e. situations with dire consequences), and the list goes on. The question is why, if we have such a capacity, is it finite?

Some evidence has been produced that demonstrated that two participants (one white, one black) in an American University, when asked to speak on race relations, had a more beneficial, enjoyable and positive experience when depleted than when undepleted (i.e. in command of their full executive faculties).

From an evolutionary perspective, though, this is fairly banal. What if Executive Function - when depleted - allows people to form more favourable social impressions ... on the opposite sex! There must be a reason it's finite, and it may be to facilitate a mating advantage. If, when depleted, we make better impressions, then we may earn ourselves an increased chance at the procreative act*.

So we took a number of participants, depleted half, and stuck them in a room with a pretty girl and a hidden camera. The girl was a confederate, and was in on the trick, but was blind to condition of each participant. They then engaged in a 10-minute unstructured conversation, after which time both parties went away and answered a survey about the experience.

What did we find? Well... nothing. Not a damn thing. No meaningful p-values at all... except one. Which showed that our manipulation did the opposite of what we intended.

So the study was a bust. My first study, was a bust. In fact, it was backwards. I was nervous - as a first time undergrad - walking into the professor's office knowing that there was nothing in the data. Was it me? Did I plan it wrong? Did I confound the study somehow? Did I miss something critical, something that would have turned the whole thing around?

Probably not. We probably used the wrong kind of depletion. For instance, warm cookies makes you persist less in impossible problems, but would it cause you to be unable to inhibit saying certain things.... Thus, it may follow that the updating task we used (an n-back task [download it here]) depleted the wrong thing. It may not stop you being a cagey conversation partner, but may make you a crappier black-jack player (a task which involves counting cards, working on and updating probabilities, and taking measureable risks).

Despite being nervous the Prof just said 'Such is research...' and that was that. It wasn't me, it was the nature of the beast. Now, as an undergrad, I have a much better idea of what I'm getting in to. When I do honours next year, and when I finally hit the PhD, I have a slightly improved idea of what to expect. Though I didn't get any decent p-values, I did get a far better idea of what it's like to be a researcher and academic... and a stronger, more clear idea about what I want to do, and how I want to go about it.

*Seriously... ever met a girlfriend/boyfriend when under the influence of alcohol?


Posted by Rohan Kapitany, regular blogger at on the blog Psycasm

--- Apfelbaum EP, & Sommers SR (2009). Liberating effects of losing executive control. Psychological science, 20 (2), 139-43 PMID: 19170942 Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642

Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642