Daniel Richardson

Last week, we knocked on Professor Richardson’s office, and had a little chat. Here’s what went down:

Interviewer: Aleya Aziz Marzuki (Bugle Team)

Aleya: Could you go ahead and introduce yourself by telling us a little about who you are and what you do at UCL?

Daniel: My name is Daniel C. Richardson – there are many Daniel Richardsons in the world so I have to use my middle initial! I’m a senior lecturer in the department of Experimental Psychology and I do Social Psychology and Cognitive Perceptual stuff.

Aleya: What got you interested in psychology and what eventually brought you to UCL?

Daniel: I did an undergraduate degree at Oxford in Philosophy and Psychology, but I was quite pretentious as a youth and saw myself as more of a philosopher and a theorist. I did find psychology interesting – particularly stuff on language learning, it was really fun –, but I thought I wanted to do philosophy. However, when it comes down to it, people have been doing philosophy for thousands of years, and to do anything in philosophy you need to be really really smart, while the advances they make are very tiny despite even for the really smart people! With psychology, you could actually prove things and move forward at a rate that is exhilarating.

So I decided very late on to give up being a philosopher because I wasn’t smart enough… That sounds awful [laughs, shakes head]…But there wasn’t enough opportunity in philosophy, and psychology was far more exciting. So I went to the computer lab where there was the one computer for my whole college, I used the Alta Vista search engine (this was before Google existed!) and I typed in the names of all the American universities I had heard of. I had heard of places like Harvard and Berkeley, and I’d heard of Cornell because I was reading a biography of Richard Feynman, the physicist. So I sent out applications and it so happened that one of the Cornell professors was really fascinated by Wittgenstein, who was my favourite philosopher and I did my undergraduate dissertation on him. I just coincided with this guy’s random interest and he said yes (to the application). I was very lucky, because all the other places said no, so I went to Cornell! I did a PhD in Cognitive Science, and basically fell in love with psychology and out of love with philosophy… The incredible thing about Psychology that I liked is that you get people to do tasks, almost like theatre, and count stuff about them and actually say something about how they learn something! This whole process of designing something and then finding out something conceptual, it just seemed like an amazing thing to be able to do!

Aleya: So why UCL in the end?

Daniel: Well I was at Cornell for a long time; five years, maybe six. I met my wife there and it was a geeky-lab-romance. I made the clever career move of marrying someone much smarter than me. She’s a developmental psychologist, and was very successful in the job market and got hired at Stanford which is the top psychology department in the world. Part of her agreement was that they had to also give a job to her idiot husband, so I ended up with a post-doctoral reseach place and a lectureship. As a post-doc, it’s a golden time where you don’t have to teach classes, you can just do your research, and I was surrounded by all these famous names, with time and money to do experiments. We then moved to Santa Cruz, had a child, and then my wife got pregnant with twins and found a job advertisement for Birkbeck University which was her dream job. So we came 6,000 miles all the way back home. I got a job at Reading University first but that didn’t work out, so I was very happy when I saw the advertisement for a place at UCL. I was very lucky and got the place – I think I was the first social psychologist the department hired, so far they only had people teaching the topic on a temporary basis, but I was kind of half social and half cognitive perceptual, which helped. It’s been a career of insane luck really!

Aleya: [Laughs] I see! So what does your current research look like?

Daniel: I’m doing lots of research, or at least my grad students and undergraduates are. We do work on lie detection, for example looking into how people decide if other people are lying, how they look at people’s faces and bodies and the cues they use to detect this stuff. Another grad student is looking at eye contact and eye contact between cultures, particularly how status keys into all of it. I’m of higher status than you because I’m taller and older so you would look at my eyes slightly different to how I look at yours, and we would do all of this differently if we were in a culture that had a different construal of status.

Also, we just got a grant from the Wellcome Trust to programme people’s phones so we can have ten to one hundred, five hundred people in the audience on their phones and play a computer game all together on the screen. About 100 years ago, psychologists were fascinated by the mind of the mob, but this all died down because we started to really focus on individuals. So now we’re trying to go back to looking at large numbers of people, how they coordinate their beliefs, how they influence each other, and how they decide. When they’re rioting, which road do they run down? When a fire alarm goes off how do they pick which exit to follow? It’s very active, slightly too active, research.

Aleya: A question suggestion we received was: Are there any controversies in the current state of social psychology today, and what would you consider the main one?

Daniel: Well, I think the replication crisis is still bubbling…

Aleya: Replication?

Daniel: So two things happened in the past five years or so. One was that there were a number of cases of just outright fraud, mainly people who had papers in top journals like Science and Nature. A famous name is Diederik Stapel, who confessed to making up all his data. And people who commit this fraud say that they’re victims of the huge academic pressure to “publish or perish”. This led to people being suspicious of lots of findings in social psychology.

So there’s the fraud problem, and we think separately that there’s this problem of replication. There are several famous studies that I teach and have replicated on television, and that people know about, but when we try and replicate them it doesn’t work. In science, or rather in psychology we’re not interested in non-replications because they’re boring failures. So there are a few famous experiments where people suddenly realised, “I didn’t replicate this is my lab, I’ve talked to my friends at conferences, no one can replicate this.” Then it becomes this secret that this isn’t a real thing. The most famous case of this was the John Bargh study on priming.

Aleya: I think I’ve watched your video on that!

Daniel: Yeah! At the time I filmed it I was in this really strange moral dilemma of, “here’s a bit of famous research that’s in all the textbooks, the BBC want to illustrate it, but there are all these rumours! I can’t go on television saying ‘well, all these rumours say it’s not real science’ because that’s slander!”. It so happened that weeks after I did that filming, a paper came out that had tried to replicate the Bargh study and this was one of the highest profile papers that was a published non-replication. They tried hundreds of different techniques to see if they could measure the person walking slowly after priming. They found out that they could replicate the Bargh effect only if the person who was walking had been timed by a first year with a stopwatch, who hadn’t yet taken a class on experimental methods, but knew what experimental condition the subject was in – and timing had to be manual, not based on an automatic system. So it was all essentially experimenter bias: if someone knew you were supposed to walk slower, they would press that button a little bit more slowly. This came out and the original author, John Bargh, flipped out and wrote this ranting post on the APS website that’s been taken down, but it’s been cached a few places. His last line was, “of course this is real science, I’ve replicated it- even the BBC has replicated it!”, and he linked to my tiny video!

So, this is still going on, and a few friends of mine have launched an entirely new journal that is trying to do things differently. The idea is that you submit to the journal with your introduction and methods before you run the experiment, and they say either, “no this is not interesting”, or “that’s a bad test of that theory.” Or they say, “yeah that’s a fair test of what you say it’s going to test.” And then no matter what the data are, they publish it. That’s one way we hope to get around all these problems, though what it rules out is the sort of tinkering and exploratory side of science, where sometimes we discover stuff that we didn’t think we were going to in the first place – just by accident. Several famous experiments had controlled conditions that went wrong – Milgram’s did too. So there are no satisfactory answers, there are lots of hurt feelings, twitter spats with people like celebrity squabble. Big names in social psychology have little snits with each other and argue about these things, because the idea is if you can’t replicate someone’s work, you’re essentially calling them either a fraud or an incompetent researcher. So it’s a tricky time. That was a very long answer…

Aleya: [laughs] That’s ok! Another question suggestion we received: do you have a favourite piece of research? Like one that absolutely blew your mind?

Daniel: Hmm, I’m thinking back to grad school. Yes, there are lots so it’s very hard to narrow it down. Early on I was obsessed by a paper by Dana Ballard (’97). It was an eye tracking study getting people to build these Lego models, move bricks around and seeing how people remembered the colour and shape of the block, and how they put them in different places. Then they did a computer version that showed you can change the colour of these blocks in the middle of people building them up, and they just keep on going! Just with what’s in their hand and not with what’s in the brain. And that insight, that there’s a lot of psychology and thinking that happens in the way that we interact with the environment and not in terms with what’s in our heads, that was very revelationary, a bit of an epiphany – particularly coming from the philosophical background. The body is irrelevant and it’s all conceptual and it’s all about these representations and ideas. That was probably the biggest jolt where I sort of lurched off to one side. That and, I think, hearing Rodney Brooks, an MIT guy who builds robots. He had this approach of, instead of trying to programme exactly what they would do, he would just build these robotic animals and they would just learn and interact with their environment. He didn’t tell them what to do, he just built things that learnt. So this idea again of organic systems that adjust to our environment rather than have this internal conceptual programme that they’re following.

Aleya: So that’s all more to the cognitive side (of psychology) isn’t it?

Daniel: Yeah, so the social (side)…I ended up being… this sounds desperately arrogant, but it’s not [he laughs]. I ended up being a social psychologist because I got into an argument with a social psychologist, and I thought I was right and she was wrong. And it was an experiment where people are watching this video of people talking on screen about undergraduate admissions –some boring topic- and one guy on the screen says something, in American terms, sort of right wing and potentially racist because he says ‘certain people get into colleges because of who they are’. And that’s a veiled dig against affirmative action. That meant that if you were African-American you get a slight boost in your chance of getting into college. In some places it’s proven that some people do. So this guy says something negative about affirmative action, and while listening, everyone looks at this black guy who’s sat in the corner.

The social psychologist said that the reason people do this is because they don’t know if that language is offensive. So, they look at the target of that potentially offensive language to see if they’re upset or not. And she had this experience when she was at Stanford and all these famous old guys of social psychology, all the big names, and she was the only female in the room. One of them made a joke about female drivers and they all laughed and they all stared at her; the tiny grad student in the corner. She thought, ‘why the hell are you all looking at me for? That’s twice over. I’m insulted by the joke and now you’re all staring at me.’ It was just doubly unpleasant. So we did this experiment trying to replicate it. She said the reason people look at the black guy in the corner is you want to see if he’s upset. You use him as a source of information. I told her this was complete rubbish and typical weak social psychology over-theorising. I had a much simpler explanation, which is just that someone up here says something that has activated the concept of black or African-American, there’s a guy right in front of you who is relevant to that category, so you look at him. Doesn’t mean anything. If the guy in the top corner said, ‘I think it’s important that we recycle because green issues are important,’ then if (the guy) had been wearing a green shirt you would’ve looked at him. That’s all, it’s just a low level association. In technical terms, your eyes constantly seek out relevant information all the time. If I say the word ‘apple’ you may glance at your phone. Doesn’t mean anything at all. So there was one of these rare cases where we had a disagreement, and we decided, ‘alright, let’s test our disagreement.’

So we designed this experiment, where we eye track people in exactly the same situation. But, before the guy started talking, saying right-wing stuff, the experimenter says, ‘we’re turning off the headphones of people sitting in the bottom row.’ So now this guy Darren, who’s black, can’t hear what’s being said, you believe. So, now the question is: do you look at him? If you believe Jennifer, the social psychologist, then we don’t look at him now. There’s no reason to, he can’t hear what’s being said. He can’t have a useful reaction for you, he’s not a useful bit of information anymore. According to my simple association theory, well he’s still there, you’ll still look at him. You don’t think (about) what he can’t hear, what his reaction might be, no. So we had this really clear prediction and our theories clearly divided. You know, it’s rarely this clean in science. We made our predictions, collected the data, and I was just completely wrong. Like not a little bit, like, ‘let’s run ten more subjects, maybe I’m right’, no I was just blown out of the water wrong.

And this was really surprising from a cognitive perspective because language perception is difficult. You’re using a lot of resources following my rapid speech right now, that’s quite a cognitive load. Just, to me it was implausible (how) you would listen to one guy, figuring out what they’re saying, simultaneously matching it up to the social identity and potential reactions of all the people surrounding you. That’s just such a lot of mental work. Right, that’s theory of mind, that’s language processing. People are lazy, they’re not going to do that. But what this experiment showed, very convincingly to me, is well you are. When you’re in a social context, you’re continually monitoring other people and thinking about what they’re thinking. And then I realised, in every cognitive experiment we get rid of this stuff. We just present language as a single stream. You never hear language in the context of other people in our experiments. Whereas in conversation, this is happening all the time. So we realise all of this social context, all this background stuff that we leave at the door of our laboratory, that’s happening in real life continually. So then I realised, well this is what I have to study now, just to try and see what the effect of all of this background social context and your beliefs about other people while thinking that is. So that’s why it’s cognitive and social psychology. I study cognitive processing like memory and language processing and decisions, but I look at the effect of people around you. How much you think about what they’re thinking, how it affects your behaviour. So by being wrong that’s how I ended up being a social psychologist.

Aleya: Okay this next one is a little less heavy: A Day in The Life of Daniel Richardson.

Daniel: Get up tired because I’ve been working until 2 am on something that’s been due three days previously. Yell at three kids (ages 7,7, and 9) to get ready for school and to do their pointlessly difficult spellings… Our kids are seven and they had to spell “irrational” and “irregular”!

Aleya: That’s irrational.

Daniel: And then they ask me, ‘what does irrational mean?’ And that’s really difficult to explain. They’re seven! I get the kids to school, and stumble into work. It’s very, very different if I’m teaching because then it’s all day panicking and worrying about the slides, tinkering with the fonts no one but me cares about, but I have to have my fonts right. Or running around West Ealing, finding brains from butchers. That’s what I was doing last week.

Aleya: For the sheep’s brain?

Daniel: Yeah, I was just running around saying, “Brains! Have you got brains?!” Which is the nice challenge of academia, you know, you have to be a mathematician, you have to be a web designer… So there are very very different days. Sometimes I just don’t move from my laptop and stare at an Excel spreadsheet and just emerge blinking after eight hours. Other days, I’m talking in front of people, so it’s very varied. And then, I go home, my wife and I split it as much as we can fifty-fifty, you know, pick up the kids and go from discussions of brain function and statistical analyses to playing Minecraft and reading kids’ books. It’s quite fun. So work stops from three to seven when they go to bed. Then, I watch one crappy entertainment TV show, and go back to work from eleven ‘till two. Then I start over again.

Aleya: And that happens every day?!

Daniel: [laughs] Pretty much! I collapse on the weekends.

Aleya: Ok, last question! What’s your number one tip for aspiring researchers?

Daniel: Uh… [hesitates] Be very very curious of everything. And love stats.

Aleya: Sounds difficult…

Daniel: It is [laughs]. Well that was two tips actually.

Aleya: So which one overrides the other?

Daniel: I guess it’s being curious about stuff. It sounds easy but as you get into the sort of drudgery of research, of all that paperwork and boring stuff, it’s easy to lose sight of the curiosity. But, as Richard Fyneman said in his autobiography, which I was reading when he got kicked out of Cornell and when I got in, before winning his Nobel prize he got completely disillusioned with his work. But, he was in the cafeteria one day and some frat boys were there throwing plates at each other, and he saw a plate go by, and it was wobbling as it flew through the air. And he wondered, “what is the equation for that wobble?” He got obsessed by it, and just kept thinking about it until eventually he figured out the maths for it which turned out to be the mathematical basis for much of quantum mechanics. So you just have to look around you even when it’s just a cafeteria full of frat boys. That curiosity, I think, is the most important thing.

We are grateful to Professor Richardson for taking the time to support the Bugle, and for being interested in helping out younger students with finding their place in the world.

This interview is presented in the Bedford Bugle with the permission of Professor Richardson. Its content may not be reproduced or used outside the context of the official Psychology Society blog and for any other purposes without the permission of the Bugle and of Professor Daniel C. Richardson.