Sunday, October 20, 2013

Six Guidelines For Interesting Research: The Remix

I may get back pain every now and then when I lift my daughter up off the ground, but I am still relatively early in my career as a social psychologist. And being young, I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my writing and scholarship. This pursuit is great for me, because as my research improves, I conduct better science and help the world understand itself more completely. It's also great for you here at PYM, because if I learn something useful I like to pay it forward to you, the reader!

Anyway, I was lucky enough to read the paper Six Guidelines for Interesting Research over the summer. It's a sure classic written by Kurt Gray--rising star in psychological science and Professor at UNC--and the late Dan Wegner--one of the leaders of modern social psychology. I love this paper because it really got me thinking about what makes interesting research. And though I don't agree with all the points raised by Gray and Wegner, I think the underlying message--be interesting--is one that researchers can sometimes forget. Let's get to my amendments:

1) Phenomena first...but then read some journal articles
Gray and Wegner argue that researchers should look to describe the human experience first and foremost in their research. This means that sometimes research questions must be created from individual life experience and not from reading the pages of our journals. In principle, this is great advice for a researcher looking to create a new paradigm or shift a scientific conversation on a topic. I would contend though that sometimes great research can be pulled from life experience AND connected to the pages of our journals. That is, since psychology has been around for a while now, it is possible that your ordinary life experiences have been explained already by researchers who came before you. It might be a good idea to engage with those researchers before claiming you've invented the "Kraus wheel."

2) Be Sell surprising
If you've read an empirical article, you've probably read an introductory paragraph where a writer makes a case for X happening, and then expertly pulls the rug out from under your feet, exclaiming "but it's not X, it's Y!" Oh the thrill you must have experienced!

Gray and Wegner argue that surprising results, results you thought would go one way but went another, are among the most interesting. It's hard to disagree with this point, but again, I might add that phenomena in social psychology have been studied for a long time, and so few things surprise us anymore. Add to that the fact that most people are pop psychologists with lay hypotheses of their own and we have very few true psychological surprises in store for us in the pages of journals.

Nevertheless, unanswered research questions typically have at least two possible outcomes (otherwise, why are you wasting your time studying this research question?). Making a strong case by citing the literature suggesting both outcome X and outcome Y is a good way to sell the surprising nature of one's research. This coupled with a well designed study will uncover support for one of these outcomes, and that, will be surprising to someone!

(3) Grandmothers (or Grandfathers), not scientists
A colleague of mine pointed out that both "G-Ma" and "Pop Pop" are likely to be equally interested in psychological research findings, on average.

(4) Be the participant... be powerful, not cute
I think psychology should really take this point to heart. Gray and Wegner argue that studies that consider what it is like to be the participant are inherently interesting. I couldn't agree more. I often grow tired of reading about articles where someone wrote about a time when they felt they had power over another person. A study where a researcher actually manipulates the extent that a person holds power to reward or punish people is inherently more interesting, and as such, much more likely to make it into a textbook on psychology, or into a random happy hour conversation (that's the goal right?).

I might also suggest that in thinking about being the participant, researchers should also strive to design powerful experiments--that is, experiments that confuse, challenge, move, and motivate participants in interesting ways. Too many times, researchers rely on subtly of experimental design when changing behavior requires real experiences that fundamentally change participants. I am reminded of a great experiment designed by one of my colleagues at the University of Illinois: He wondered what people do when confronted with insults. Rather than having participants think of a time they were insulted (BORING), he had his participants actually insulted by a research assistant! The study is a classic!

(5) Simple Appropriate statistics with simple words
Gray and Wegner argue for using simple statistics in all experiments, and they throw out a few very simple examples (e.g., t tests or ANOVAs only!). I appreciate this thought but I think it needs amending: I would argue that appropriate statistics must be used in any analysis. Period. Full stop. But I think that the overarching point that Gray and Wegner make still stands: Appropriate statistics must be explained in simple language so that the reader can understand why these statistics are being used and why they are necessary. Too many times we assume that our reader has access to our internal thoughts--with statistical analyses this couldn't be further from the true.

(6) Powerful beginnings!!!!
All I did was add exclamation points to this one.

What else do you think is necessary for conducting interesting research? Let me know in the comments!

Gray, K., & Wegner, D. (2013). Six guidelines for interesting research Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 549-553

Cohen D, Nisbett RE, Bowdle BF, & Schwarz N (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: an "experimental ethnography". Journal of personality and social psychology, 70 (5), 945-59 PMID: 8656339


  1. Very nice amendments, especially on the one about statistical tests. I might even amend #2 to "Sell Important" but that may be splitting hairs.

    1. I agree with you that important and interesting aren't completely overlapping constructs, and selling the importance of a finding is another way to be interesting. The simple, straightforward fact that an intervention reduces risk of mortality is inherently both important and interesting... because death.

      Now, if you study hiccups and social anxiety just as an example, it might be your responsibility to sell it as interesting. I think the importance ship has sailed--but that's just my opinion. Thanks!

    2. What do you mean by the importance ship having sailed?

    3. I just mean that hiccups are rare and so they might not have relative importance for social anxiety (in our example), but that doesn't mean the studies can't be interesting.

    4. Ah, I get it! Yes that makes sense to me.