From the Science Student Council

The psychology of “me”: The pros and cons of research ideas that are central to the self

How much of "you" should go into your research?

By David R. Kille

When entering graduate school, it's difficult to know exactly what to research. Students are often told to "go with their interests." However, many students have not been exposed to enough research to know what their main interests are or are otherwise unable to focus their interests. One solution is to frame one's research question about oneself. This type of research question has been referred to (somewhat) jokingly as "me-search." Although me-search questions are typically more common in some areas of psychology (e.g., clinical, social, I/O), almost any discipline can foster me-search (e.g., a researcher who often forgets may wish to study memory processes). There are several benefits of me-search; however there are also some important issues that should be considered when delving into the field of "me." 

Any research a graduate student conducts must be interesting to him or her, particularly in the early stages of a research project when a great deal of work goes into a project, such as conducting literature searches or designing materials, but relatively little output emerges. It is therefore paramount that a graduate student's research topic be intrinsically interesting and motivating to him or her. Research and intuition suggest that few topics are more interesting to people than the topic of themselves (e.g., Twenge & Foster, 2010). Infusing a bit of yourself into your research, then, might be a good strategy to keep motivation (and productivity) at high levels, particularly in the early stages of the research process. 

Who is more likely to understand the nuances of a topic than someone who has first-hand experience with it? For example, visible minorities' views of discrimination are likely to be quite different than non-minorities' views. That is, their experiences with discrimination (particularly subtle forms that may go undetected by non-minorities) can bring a unique perspective to their research. This is certainly not to say that non-minorities cannot make phenomenal discoveries about the underlying processes or experiences surrounding a topic such as prejudice or discrimination; however predicting that a phenomenon occurs seems quite different from experiencing that same phenomenon. The latter may provide nuanced insight that an "objective" or "outside" view cannot offer. 

Now the downside. Imagine you were chatting with a colleague at a conference who appeared to be about 30 years old, an Asian-American male, and approximately 6 foot 3. In asking him what he studied, he replies "how job outcomes of Asian-American males in their thirties depend on their height." Perhaps a legitimate research question--however, when it is so apparent that one's research is about oneself, several issues might arise. One of the cornerstones of scientific research is objectivity. Scientists are trained to avoid biasing the results of their studies (e.g., by being blind to experimental condition) and to design and evaluate experiments with a critical eye. Because people generally have a tendency (or need) to view themselves positively (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Miller, 1999), objectivity might be difficult to maintain when there is clearly self-interest involved. For example, would this hypothetical colleague design a study to show a self-serving outcome (i.e., that taller Asian-American males in their thirties are much more successful than shorter counterparts)? Thus, a problem with clear cases of me-search is that others may be skeptical of self-serving results even when a study is of the highest caliber. 

Another potential issue to consider is that people change. Who you are at the beginning of graduate school might be quite different from the person you become after graduation. If a researcher decided to base his or her dissertation on Internet addiction mostly because of his or her own proclivity to waste time online, this line of research might lose its appeal if the Internet is no longer a problem of addiction or distraction. Even demographic variables, such as the hypothetical colleague’s height or ethnicity may become more or less salient at different life stages. Further, some me-search questions have distinct answers that may have limited directions for future research. For example, once the hypothetical colleague discovers that indeed, taller Asian American men in their thirties have higher occupational success, the next step in this line of research is quite unclear. The point presented here is that unless your topic of inquiry is interesting for reasons other than the fact that you want to figure out something about yourself, you should probably think more deeply about how your research interests advance the field of scientific research. 

So what is a young researcher to do? Like many things in life, me-search benefits from the advice of "everything in moderation." Too narrow of a focus on the self in one's research is likely to raise some skepticism, perhaps even fairly so. However, one should not be completely averse to the idea of incorporating one's own experiences, strengths, shortcomings, and so forth into one's line of research. Recognize the potential biases that can arise from extreme forms of me-search and ask yourself if you will be OK if your data suggest something unfavorable about yourself. Your program of research should answer an interesting question. Make sure that it is interesting to others as well as the self.

References

Miller, D. T. (1999). The norm of self-interest. American Psychologist, 54, 1 – 8.

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193 – 210.

Twenge, J. M., & Foster, J. D. (2010). Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982 – 2009. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 99 – 106.


David Kille is the social psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo. His current research interests span the domains of social cognition and close relationships. He is particularly focused on social aspects of goal pursuit and emotional contagion, with additional interests in how cognitive mindsets (e.g., thinking abstractly vs. concretely) interact with self-esteem to predict how relational information is processed.