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Academic Problems and Skills

How Do Psychologists Decide What to Study?

Personal Perspective: Psychological research is sometimes, but not always, “me-search."

Key points

  • It is sometimes assumed that the personal concerns of the researcher guide psychological research.
  • Research topics often evolve from curiosity about how everyday life works.
  • Connecting new research to existing bodies of research is essential.
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

There is an old saying among psychological scientists that “Research is me-search.” This means, of course, that people, including psychologists, are drawn to topics that have deep relevance to issues in their own lives.

This old saying certainly rings true as I watch my undergraduate students select topics for their capstone senior research projects: The too-thin young woman who wants to study eating disorders, the student of color who is interested in racism, the child of divorce who desperately wishes to understand how a marriage ending in divorce affects children.

Given that I am best known for my work on creepiness and gossip, this old truism about “me-search” stalks and haunts me whenever I do a media interview about my research on either of these topics. The interviewer always wants to know what it is, exactly, that enticed me to devote years of my life to studying such a thing. There seems to be an assumption that I have a personal story to tell about a lifetime of being plagued by gossip or about my fear that I am chronically creeping other people out.

I will let the discerning reader draw their own conclusions about my interest in creepiness, but my interest in gossip does have an identifiable point of origin that is a bit more mundane than one might expect.

Research Ideas Can Be Inspired by Everyday Life

One day, about 25 years ago, I was standing in a long, slow-moving line at a grocery store. As it happened, my progress was stalled right next to a magazine rack rife with tabloids full of scandalous stories about movie stars, politicians, and assorted other celebrities.

For the first time in my life, I really looked at these publications and found myself wondering how they all stayed in business. Who reads all of this stuff? Why do we care so much about the private lives of individuals who we will never meet? I pondered this during my drive to the office after I left the store. I remember posing questions about the allure of these magazines to the first psychologist colleague I encountered when I got to work, and our ensuing conversation fanned the flames of my interest even further.

Being a good academic, my first impulse was to turn to the scientific literature to see what experts on gossip had been able to uncover. I was stunned by what I found, or more accurately, by what I did not find. There were a few studies in which anthropologists hung out in villages in random cultures and reported on what they heard people talking about when they gossiped and some intriguing anthropological theories about the origin of gossip.

However, I was unable to find anything in the way of actual experiments done by social psychologists on how gossip works. This is extraordinary: Until the dawn of the 21st century, a universal human activity that lies at the heart of social life had been largely ignored by scientists whose stated mission was to understand human social interaction.

As an experimental social psychologist, I found the implied challenge irresistible. And so, with the help of some of my students, I embarked on a series of experiments on the psychology of gossip. I am proud to say that an interest in gossip spread like wildfire throughout the research community and that the study of gossip is now a thriving enterprise in the field of social psychology and related social sciences.

Thus, some research ideas do indeed spring directly from questions that arise through observing everyday life or from personal concerns faced by the researcher. However, this is not the only way in which research questions are formulated, and I will explore this in another post.

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