Tips from a young SAGE Scholar: Clayton Critcher

The Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology (FPSP) and SAGE recently announced the SAGE Young Scholars Awards 2015 recipients.  Five awards are presented each year to young scholars representative of the broad spectrum of personality and social psychology research areas.

“The SAGE Young Scholar Awards recognize outstanding achievements by young scholars who are early in their research careers. The awards are intended to provide these scholars with funds that can be flexibly applied in extending their work in new and exciting directions. Previous winners of this award have gone on to positions of intellectual leadership in the field. Because these awards are highly sought after, winning a SAGE Young Scholar Award is recognition of both accomplishment and potential,” shared Harry Reis, President of FPSP.

This year’s awardees were selected from a large and highly competitive field of qualified nominees. Please join us in congratulating them, who will be recognized at the award ceremony during the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention in Long Beach, California, February 26-28, 2015 and this week on SAGE Connection. Today, let’s meet Clayton:

Clayton Critcher, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Cognitive Science, and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley

  1. Congratulations, Clayton! Let’s start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your current research.

CritcherI recently came across the following quote from Evelyn Waugh, “Nobody wants to read other people’s reflections on life and religion and politics, but the routine of their day, properly recorded, is always interesting.” Although my own internet-perusing procrastination calls into question the first half of the sentence, the second half captures what initially drew me to social psychology. The projects I’ve been most excited about recently are those based on my attempt to make my ordinary experiences—those that can vary from frustrating to mundane—interesting.

Two years ago, my partner and I were at the Las Vegas airport, waiting to return to San Francisco. Strong winds delayed our flight for six hours. Upon landing at SFO, the airline’s damage control machine came to life. Moments after the aircraft door opened, a gate agent boarded the plane and distributed apology vouchers to those on board. My partner, who tops the status echelon on this airline, was given $350; whereas I, whose airline loyalties lie elsewhere, received $75. Suddenly, I felt wronged, but I wasn’t sure why. After all, airlines (and most businesses) treat loyal and infrequent customers differently all the time—differential treatment to which I either passively acquiesce or even condone as rational.

A few weeks later, my longtime friend and collaborator Emily Rosenzweig and I started designing studies to uncover this mystery. When are we OK with businesses treating us the same versus differently? Does it matter that the compensation was explicitly labeled as an apology? Does it make it better or worse that the wind was not the airline’s fault? What, more generally, does this tell us about the scripts that apologies should follow, and how they can fail?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with research being motivated by real-world experiences associated with more pressing social issues. And other lines of work I’m involved in relate to such topics (e.g., how intergroup anxiety influences the quantity and quality of intergroup contact, how framing manipulations can improve savings decisions). But at least for me, a big part of social psychology’s allure will always reside in its offering the tools to make sense of the little social mysteries we notice every day—as long as we’re looking for them.

  1. What tips do you have for a researcher who values innovation?

Sometimes students ask me when they should complete their literature review: as they prepare to run their first study, or as they prepare to write the paper? Although researchers clearly don’t want to approach research from a state of ignorance, I think there is a legitimate worry that being too well-versed in a research tradition can narrow one’s perspective and keep one from truly innovative questions. When learning about what previous researchers have done, our attention can be drawn to the deficiencies in a package of studies: the loose threads that need to be tied up in order to successfully answer the proposed research question. Innovative researchers seem to have a knack for noticing not merely which questions aren’t being answered well, but which questions aren’t being asked altogether. The latter is a difficult skill in itself, but recognizing it as a worthwhile talent is the first step in acquiring it.

  1. What is one research-related resolution you came up with for 2015?

I’m both blessed and cursed with having an extremely low threshold for what I think is interesting. On the positive side, I can easily entertain myself by reading most things cover to cover: newspapers, People, JPSP, almanacs with tables of sunrise and sunset times. On the negative side, this means I sometimes misgauge what makes for interesting cocktail party chatter.

More relevant to research, it means I can become fascinated by nuance—seeing profound, subtle mysteries where others are mystified by the appeal of profoundly-subtle tedium. I once thought that if a question could be answered, it should be. More recently, I have leaned on my colleagues and students more to figure out whether I can sell why a question is important. My position is now more moderate: if a question can be answered, it probably should be.

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