How did you become interested in psychology?
I happened to take a class as an undergraduate and found the subject fascinating. What intrigued me was the idea that you could use the scientific method to address a lot of questions I’d never considered before—how people process information, how we learn, and which therapies are effective. I started to consider the world’s great questions and how they were amendable to psychology. I began thinking about the environment and how to get people to behave in a way that is beneficial to humans and the planet. How can we use psychology to get more equal distribution of food? How do we teach people to behave in responsible ways in terms of family planning and modify the education system so that our children experience a more enlightened world? All these issues came to me in my first psychology class.
Who was your mentor and how did he/she help your development as a psychologist?
I really had two mentors. While I was getting my master’s degree at East Carolina University, my mentor was Jim Higgins. I didn’t know if I had what it took to be a behavioral scientist. It wasn’t that I was lacking in confidence; I just didn’t understand what skills were involved. Jim gave me faith that I would be able to make a contribution to the field. While working on my dissertation at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, my mentor was John Seta, who is a social psychologist. From him, I learned what a joy it is to be engaged in the scientific process and how to frame questions in a scientific fashion and pursue them.
I owe both of those guys an awful lot. One other thing I learned from them was that when you get a doctorate, there’s a sense of obligation. Your duty is to polish psychology and pass it along to the next generation better than you found it. My mentors took psychology and added to the knowledgebase, and they handed it me. That’s something I think of every day.
Do you have any tips for students planning to attend graduate school?
The best thing to do in terms of applying is to follow the guidance of a professor you trust because applying to graduate school is a much more complex endeavor than applying to an undergraduate program. You should knock on someone’s door and say, "I need help.” Find a professor to show you what schools are looking for. You need a professor to check your letter of intent to see if you’re addressing issues that are pertinent to those who decide upon your application. You need to be told what experiences people look for and value. A dynamite letter of intent can go a long way.
You must demonstrate that you are somebody who did more than just go to class and get good grades. You have to show promise and know how to present yourself. Professors are looking to get the best people who will have chemistry with them and who will fit into their labs. You need to be told how the GRE is evaluated and how to assess the likelihood of getting into a particular program before you apply. Many students fail to get into graduate programs because they did not apply in a wise fashion. That should never happen. Unfortunately, you don’t know the rules of the game until you are past the application process.
One of the things you need is lab experience. Volunteer in a lab because most people who train psychologists are researchers and are looking for somebody who has interest in research. Target a professor at a graduate school—give them a call and discuss their research. It’s harder for them to turn down a person they know than a piece of paper. It’s all part of playing the game in the right way.
If you don’t get accepted at first, don’t give up. Try to make an objective assessment of what could make you more attractive to graduate programs. Volunteer in labs after graduating because it shows motivation and dedication. If you have a 3.0 GPA, and you apply wisely, there is a strong chance that there is a graduate program for you.
What kinds of research did you do while you worked in the army research labs and how did it benefit you?
During a 10-12 year period, I worked on three main projects. One focused on increasing the efficiency of military teams. Another was evaluating the performance of soldiers in new weapons systems and determining whether a soldier could perform certain tasks effectively.
My third and most interesting project was trying to decrease deaths from friendly fire. Fratricide has been with us throughout military history; 10-25% of American military fatalities since the beginning of the 20th century have been from friendly fire. What we’re trying to do is develop procedures that would decrease the likelihood of firing on your own. Psychology has a lot to bring to those issues. What we’re talking about is targeting decisions. Someone looks up on a hill, sees a vehicle, and must decide to shoot or not shoot. It’s about misidentification. Because of severe time pressures, mistakes can easily be made.
This work taught me that research skills are transferable. I would come in and they would say, "Here’s a problem. Can you figure out how to construct studies to solve these problems?” Once I learned the literature, I could take research skills from other areas and apply them to these problems. Many behavioral problems can be examined once you acquire research training. It’s scientific puzzle solving.
What made you decide to teach?
When I was working on my master’s, I had the chance to earn money through teaching, and I didn’t have any money, so that made teaching attractive. Then, I discovered it was fulfilling. I had never envisioned being a college professor. Before this, I thought I would teach severely mentally challenged people self-care and social skills. But in the course of getting my master’s, I got excited about teaching. It is like sharing something with a friend except this is a big group of friends. I was hooked! It quickly became apparent, though, that I needed to get my PhD if I wanted to continue teaching.
How did you become interested/ involved in finding Little Albert?
Some of my students came to my office and wanted me to lead a quest to find Little Albert. I initially thought it was the worst idea I had heard in years. How many babies missing for 90 years are going to be discovered? Also, many diligent investigators had searched, but there was nothing anyone knew about him after he left Johns Hopkins. I didn’t think we had any chance of finding Albert. But, when you do research and you pursue a dream, you often find things of value you don’t expect to find. These students were really emotionally involved before we began. It was the first meaningful research experience for many of them in their lives.
I decided that we’d do what we could to learn about Watson’s infant studies. A part of that was the question of Albert’s identity, and that’s how we got started. The Albert project took the students beyond lectures and textbooks and really got them involved in their field. That was really the most important thing that came out of the Albert question. Looking for Albert was like using a lantern to follow a path. We followed the clues of what we knew about Albert, and we started learning more about the infant studies. Then, it all came together, and Albert suddenly turned and we could see his face.
Why do you think it is important to involve students in your research?
A good lab is like a good friendship—it’s symbiotic! In my lab, everybody gives and receives. When you come in, you may start off as a data collector, furnishing information for studies, and, in turn, you learn. You develop skills and get involved with the underlying concepts. Professors need to get students involved in lab work because this is where the new generation of psychologists is being formed. For many students, lab experience is the most significant thing that they will carry from their undergraduate careers. To me, the lab is the most important teaching experience I have. Research experience is certainly one of the main things that will get your students into graduate schools. It demonstrates that students have a passion for the field.
What will we see from you in the future?
We just finished a new paper on Watson and Albert. I did not plan this paper, but some colleagues made what I believe to be some rather extraordinary discoveries. Also, we’re doing more on college student retention. Schools are concerned with retention, but often the way they go about handling it has not been guided by science.
I’m also doing more with friendly fire research. What we’re trying to do is see if, on various tasks, we can tell if a person is going to make a mistake before they make it. People will perform various tasks, and as they perform these tasks, we’ll monitor where their eyes are moving. If we see a pattern that eye movements follow when someone is right and when someone is wrong, then perhaps by looking at eye movements, we can predict whether he or she is about to make a mistake.
It’s exciting because usually we learn through consequences. The problem with experiencing consequences is that sometimes they’re pretty awful. We would like to see if these negative consequences that people experience could be avoided by studying eye movement. This may seem futuristic, but that is what psychological scientists do. We are making the future.