Star Track: Peter McGraw

Following on the success of our Research Heroes interviews, we’re launching a new interview series: Star Track. In this series, we turn the spotlight on researchers who will play an important role in shaping the future of the field. These people have already made a significant contribution with their ground breaking research and engagement in the research community –  you might know about them or might not, but you should definitely listen to what they have to say – enjoy!
First in our new series is Peter McGraw, an DSC_0667-1associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral decision theory. His research examines the interrelationship of judgment, emotion, and choice, with a focus on consumer behavior and public policy. Lately, McGraw has been investigating what makes things funny. He directs at the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL), a laboratory dedicated to the experimental study of humor, its antecedents, and consequences. He has co-authored The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which hit the bookstores on 4/1/2014. Of recent note, McGraw made the 2013 Stylish Scientist List – probably because he likes to rock a sweater vest.

I wanted to pursue an academic career in this field because… I thought that pursuing an academic career would yield a stimulating yet leisurely intellectual life. (I was half right.) While researching grad programs, I read Tom Gilovich’s book: How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. By the end of chapter 2, I was hooked on the idea of studying judgment and decision making.

I find the inspiration for my research mostly from… Entrepreneurs and artists. Scientists don’t often think of their research as a creative endeavor that is important to share broadly with the world. I believe that the process of creating and disseminating scientific insights is enhanced by emulating people who have a different perspective and a broader array of tools. Also, behaving like an artist or an entrepreneur is much more fun than just trying to please peer reviewers.

When people ask me what I do, I say…. I study what makes things funny.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… In the summer of 2008, Caleb Warren and I set out to answer the question of why people laugh at moral violations. That project changed my life, as it spurred a quest to crack the humor code (something that behavioral decision theory’s “emotional revolution” had overlooked). The resulting paper, which published in Psychological Science in 2010, brought together my two main research areas at the time: moral judgment and mixed emotions. Caleb and I introduce the benign violation theory of humor and showed that moral violations can be a source of pleasure (something every good comic knows).

Everything came together just right; the paper was accepted with no requested changes – something that I never expect to happen again.

The paper that has most influenced me is… When Caleb and I were examining the research on humor, the theories didn’t seem quite right. Fortunately, we found a little-cited paper published by a linguist named of Thomas Veatch. To us, it was a huge advance over existing theories. Veatch’s work served as the foundation for the benign violation theory, which in turn, serves as the foundation for the research conducted in the Humor Research Lab.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Starting some sort of business.

The most important quality for a researcher to have is… Perseverance. Repeat after me, “They can slow us down, but they can’t stop us.”

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… Finding a way speed the peer-review process.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Write every day. Start today – and purchase the book: How to Write A Lot.

The one thing I’ve found most challenging is… Staying asleep until my alarm goes off. The work academics do is highly evaluative and uncertain – two conditions that contribute to anxiety. And anxiety gets me out of bed early. On the other hand, it has a silver lining. I believe that every day is a big day and should be lived with a sense of urgency. And big days rarely start with the snooze button.

For more information on Peter McGraw visit his page: http://www.petermcgraw.org/

For more information on his book see: http://humorcode.com/

Advertisements

Guest post: Why we should talk to the media

This week we have a guest post from Lisa Munoz, the Public Information Officer at Society for Personality and Social Psychology. She spoke at the recent SPSP conference in New Orleans on how researchers can get their message across in the media – today she tells us why she thinks that’s a worthwhile thing to do. 

A Love Letter for Public Outreach

As I write this post, it is Valentine’s Day week, one of the busiest weeks fordog-with-valentines-day-heart (1) psychology in the news. Relationships, gift-giving, sex, cultural norms, group dynamics – all provide fertile ground for popular press stories at this time of year. This media draw toward psychology may make some scientists wary as they wonder, for example, if the press will misrepresent their work just to get out a cute Valentine’s story. While the chance always exists that a reporter will distort or water down your research to “sell” a sexier or cuter story, to deny yourself the opportunity to reach a broader audience would be a huge disservice.

I can list at least a dozen good reasons to talk with the press and the public about scientific work: among them, publicizing your research to potential funding agencies and future collaborators; attracting people to your specific field of study; and raising the profile of the science. A sometimes overlooked reason for talking with the press is simply to share the excitement and joy of your research with others who have similar interests.

You study social psychology to explore questions about human behavior that have piqued your curiosity throughout your life. Undoubtedly, most of us have or will have asked ourselves some of the same questions at some point in time. It is rare to be in a profession that shares so much in common with so many people, thus putting you in the rare position to constantly teach and share.

Just this past Sunday, Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, wrote an Op-ed in the New York Times about his relationship research – yes, taking advantage of Valentine’s Day. His work found that married couples who spent just 7 minutes at a time, 3 times a year writing about their fights from a neutral point of view were happier in their marriages. The title of the Op-Ed, “Dear Valentine, I Hate It When You …”, is cute yes but the message is far from trivial: For all couples, this research hits home, offering insight into how we can more constructively tackle relationship problems.

Reaching out to the media to share your research is an enriching experience that I hope you all will undertake throughout your careers.

Lisa M.P. Munoz, Public Information Officer, SPSP

spsp.publicaffairs@gmail.com | @SPSPnews