Q&A with Experimental Cognitive Psychologist, Alice Healy, Ph.D.
Q: What is experimental psychology and how does it differ from other forms of psychology?
Experimental psychology, as you can tell from its name, is defined in terms of the experimental method. In the experimental method, the primary definition is that you manipulate an independent variable and measure a dependent variable. You measure the effects of that manipulation on behavior or performance. Because we've controlled for everything else and just manipulated the one variable, we can say that any difference we get in conditions is caused by that manipulation. That's what makes it exciting. Experimental psychology really encompasses all the fields of psychology: cognitive, clinical, developmental and social psychology. But the way the term is used today, it really refers to cognitive psychology and animal behavior.
Q: How did you become interested in experimental psychology?
I really became interested as an undergraduate at Vassar College. In my freshman year, as part of one of my psychology courses, I had to do an original experiment. I got very interesting results, and it just turned me on to the field. I've gotten a number of my students to become experimental psychologists by requiring them to also do an original experiment. You can't do a whole new experiment from the beginning to end in your first class in physics, biology or chemistry. You can in psychology. I have a student whose very first experiment was expanded upon, and the study was just accepted for publication. You can contribute to the field from the very beginning.
Q: What kind of background is helpful for the field?
I think [students should] take a course in experimental methods in psychology or in experimental psychology; that would be the best. They should also take courses in statistics and in cognitive psychology, perception or animal behavior. People often take those classes before they take experimental methods.
Q: Can you describe the kind of research in which students might be involved?
The experiment I started out with used a pretty simple task called "letter detection." Subjects read a prose passage and circled every instance of a target letter. In this case, it was the letter "t." What I found is that subjects miss an incredibly large number of "ts" that occur in the word "the." It's like they don't see it-we call that a "missing letter effect." But, according to the theory that I favor, they're reading the word "the" not letter-by-letter, but, since it's so common, they see it as a whole configuration. [People] won't spend the extra time to process all the individual components. This letter detection task gives us a window into the processes we use for letter and word identification during reading. [For students], the most popular experiments have some variation on the theme of studying. A lot of things in your everyday life or intuitions you have can be tested through experiments.
Q: What other opportunities are there outside of academic research?
There are a lot of opportunities in industry. There are jobs in human factors, in which psychologists, on the basis of experiments, determine the best way to design a product or procedure that would optimize choice or behavior. People in those industry jobs are often excited to get someone with a background in experimental psychology. For example, in an industry, there might be a computer program, and [the company] might want to determine whether a big screen or small screen would be better. They will do experiments to determine how to develop the product.
Q: What should students expect as they start out in their careers?
One thing students can expect is hard work. In experimental psychology, you really have to have an aptitude for quantitative work. You have to be high in math ability and be a good writer because you have to write up your results. Publishing is extremely important. Once you've done an experiment, it doesn't count for anything if you're not able to tell people about it. Students should realize they're going to need to work more than 40 hours per week. It's a competitive field, but there's an incredible amount of payoff and an ability to contribute to the knowledge of how people behave. You can't always have such a strong sense of contribution in other fields.
Q: Is there anything that surprised you about experimental psychology?
One thing that surprised me is how important it is to get grants. I can do experiments with my class and pencil and paper, but, for other research, you really need grants. Also, it surprised me how little attention is given to the results of psychological research. For example, if we do studies that have applications to education or training, I would hope that educators and trainers would read about the research and change how they do things on the basis of what we find is the best method. It's frustrating that there's very little of that. It's hard to get the research to change the outside world.
Q: How have experimental psychology practices changed in the last few years?
One thing I've noticed is that the field has become more interdisciplinary. Linguists, computer scientists, neuroscientists and even philosophers have collaborated with experimental psychology to a much greater degree. People aren't just interested in how and why we behave, but also in what the neural underpinnings of behavior are-what is happening in the brain that can help us explain why we behave the way we do? There's a much bigger emphasis on that than before.
Q: What do you see for the future of the discipline?
The pressures to be more interdisciplinary and to find applications [for the research] are just going to be greater. Cognitive and experimental psychologists are going to have to make sure that their research has possible applications. They're not going to be able to get funding if the research doesn't. There's more and more interest in doing research that will have an impact on the outside world.
Q: Any other recommendations for aspiring experimental psychologists?
First, try to do an experiment. Work with a professor in an independent study or take a class that will allow you to do creative experiments. Doing an experiment is the best way to learn how to. Also, you can and should start reading articles in the professional literature: for instance, the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Psychonomic Society journals such as Memory & Cognition.