Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“It’s alive!”: A social scientist discovers physiology

I am a social psychology PhD student, and proud of it. I love my research – it’s loads of fun and I’m generally not hampered by a lot of the constraints that students in other areas of psych tend to face. For me, no specialized equipment required; paper and pencil are my weapons of choice. No crash course in computer programming at the start of my PhD: my first study (N=120) was run in the refectory area on campus. In about an hour and a half.

Yep, I was leading the methodological good life. Until I realized that my research questions aren’t totally answered by self-report measurements. You see, I study the effects of global threats on intergroup relations. A main problem of threat is that sometimes it’s so threatening that people just switch off and deny that it’s there. I’m beginning to find strange patterns in my data where sometimes people in my low threat condition report being just as threatened as people in my high threat condition.

So how to deal with this problem? I decided I needed to a radical new approach. I needed to tackle this problem head (and body) on. In short, I needed…physiological measures. A few weeks on from this decision and I’ve entered a turbulent world full of heart rate, skin conductance, startle eyeblink, and facial electromyography. I won’t lie, approaching a whole new methodology in my final year of data collection is a big step, and is more than a little threatening in its own right. But it’s also liberating and exciting and opens up a whole new avenue of potential research questions.

The best lesson I’ve learned during this process is a simple one. No one methodology is infallible; a research question needs to be approached from multiple angles to really get a full picture of the human experience. A pretty basic principle, I know, but often it’s easy to get stuck in a methodological rut. We get such a short time to really immerse ourselves in a PhD topic that when we find something that works, we often stick with it. I’ll update everyone on how my personal quest for methodological rigor goes…

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au


  1. It's about time this blog developed some social skills. Great first post Katie!

  2. Awesome - love it! Although, not everything answered by self report!!?? Tell that to my failed IAT... sigh.