Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Fun: When Your Research Goes Rogue

Technically, we were on the cover!
In my very brief academic career it has been fun and gratifying to receive attention from the mainstream media on topics covered in my research. There are a number of benefits to this. For example, my parents--for perhaps the first time-- could actually get a sense of what exactly I do all day, and could even tell their friends about it! In some cases it gave me a chance to connect with interesting people--not directly, but indirectly through my research. For example, some players from the local professional basketball team, the golden state warriors, gave quotes about some of our research in the local newspaper. It also allowed me to live a childhood dream: as a kid I was quite the basketball player--dreaming of one day being written about in Sports Illustrated. Research allowed this to happen (though admitedly it wasn't quite the way I had imagined it as a kid). Still, when the media storm hits, you can't help but feel like your work is taking on a life of its own, and that you have little control over the outcome. Here I'd like to give some fun examples for when... Your Research Goes Rogue!

Correlation Becomes Causation
In a study on touch and performance, we argued that touch between teammates (e.g., high fives) is an indicator of cooperation/trust, and that teams that touch more should win more. The study itself was correlational in nature (variables were measured and not manipulated). All this means is that we can't, from our single study, infer that touch causes improved performance among teams. But of course, that didn't stop one media outlet from writing something to the effect of "the study can't determine whether touch boosts performance, but it likely does."

You Get Misquoted
Don't get me wrong, sometimes during your least eloquent moments, misquotes can be good for you. However, when talking to the media, things often get twisted in the conversation. I was quoted once regarding one of our studies showing that people from lower-class backgrounds tend to score higher--relative to upper-class individuals--on the ability to read others' emotions for Marie Claire magazine. The quote read something like: "Women should look for less wealthy men because they are more concerned and caring." This particular misquote was embarrassing because it was pointed out by one of my colleagues who reads Marie Claire. Embarrassing office conversations ensued shortly after...

Hyperbole Hyperbole Hyperbole
This picture sums it up nicely. Obviously our research does not conclude that wealthy people are "Insensitive Jerks?"
At least the DOW was up that day!

Surprise Connections!
In the aforementioned touch research on NBA teams, I can't tell you how many times people have asked me to extend the research to work groups, classrooms, health benefits, children with autism, insert-other-special-group-here. I'm honestly not sure how to handle these extensions, after all, the research was conducted on a specific population, and results from a single study are hard to generalize to other groups. Still, I must confess to speaking to reporters about the broad generalizeability of my findings, with the one caveat that evidence is "forthcoming."

You Make People Angry
Some of my work involves students from wealthier and better-educated families who show more behavioral disengagement in social interactions (e.g., doodling, ignoring others, checking their cell phone, etc...). This topic fascinates some people and, as you might understand, makes other people very upset. One eloquent Wall Street Journal reader put it nicely: "This is all bullcrap about how the wealthy avoid eye contact." I've fielded several Emails with a similar tone.

My point with all of this is not to point out how silly it is for researchers to go to the media. I think it has some really great benefits--including, reaching a wider audience and stirring up debates about topics that you think are important. I also think the large majority of reporters get things right in their writing, and that's commendable. Sometimes though, things get slightly lost in translation, and that is something to know as a consumer of the news, and as a researcher talking to a reporter for the first time.

Do you have any funny stories about being misquoted? I'd love to read them in the comments!

Kraus MW, Côté S, & Keltner D (2010). Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy. Psychological science, 21 (11), 1716-23 PMID: 20974714

No comments:

Post a Comment