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."
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!
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