The Joys and Sorrows of Cross-Disciplinary Research

As part of our continuing series on bridging sub-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary boundaries, Professor David Watson reflects on his own experiences exporting research on mood, personality, and psychopathology. Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa, he received his BS in psychology from Santa Clara University in 1975, and his PhD in personality research from the University of Minnesota in 1982. Clinical scientists face particular challenges and opportunities that he describes well.

-Susan T. Fiske
APS President

Cross-disciplinary work presents challenges and frustrations similar to those of cross-cultural research. I know, because I have done both; indeed, I started doing both types of research very early in my career. While I was a graduate student, my wife and colleague, Lee Anna Clark, received a Fulbright fellowship to collect her dissertation data in Japan. Not surprisingly, I decided to accompany her, although my own plans for this time abroad admittedly were rather vague. Fortunately, my graduate advisor, Auke Tellegen, saved the day by suggesting that I should use this opportunity to conduct a factor-analytic investigation of Japanese mood ratings. This study subsequently formed the basis for my own dissertation (“A Cross-Cultural Study of the Structure of Mood”); it also initiated a long line of research on affect and emotion that now spans more than 20 years, and that gradually has spread across a number of different areas.

Of course, I had no inkling of any of this when I began that first Japanese study. This initial investigation examined short-term fluctuations in mood, which was the focus of most of my early work in affect. Before long, however, I began to branch out into other areas. Because of my training in personality assessment, the first – and most natural – extension was to examine stable individual differences in temperament and emotionality. Another natural extension was to move beyond normal-range states to study dysfunctional emotional reactions; this led to an interest in the mood and anxiety disorders that continues to this day. Other applications followed, including work in health (examining the links between emotions and illness), industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology (investigating the role of temperament in job satisfaction), and close relationships (exploring the influence of temperament on relationship satisfaction).

So, I am familiar with both the joys and sorrows of cross-disciplinary work. Let’s start with the latter. As I reflect on my own experiences, three problems quickly come to mind. First, when working in a new area, you must learn a whole new set of rules, assumptions, and scientific biases; no matter how thoroughly you prepare, you never quite know how your work will be viewed from this unfamiliar perspective. I still remember submitting my first paper to a major I-O journal. I thought I had conducted a pretty neat study, which basically showed that individuals who are high in positive emotionality – and low in negative emotionality – tend to be more satisfied with their jobs. Although I anticipated several of the criticisms I received (e.g., smallish sample, exclusive reliance on self-report data), I was completely unprepared for the reviewer who expressed shock that anyone would waste their time studying personality traits, because it already had been established that traits do not exist!

Second, regardless of your reputation elsewhere, you will be seen as a largely unproven outsider as you cross boundaries into a new area. You may be supremely confident that you have a lot of fresh insights to offer, but this may not be readily apparent to your new colleagues. Much of my early clinical research, for instance, was designed to highlight problems with the existing diagnostic system, particularly with regard to the unclear (and, I felt, misplaced) distinction between depression and anxiety. When preparing talks for psychopathology conferences, my goal was to present overwhelming empirical evidence that would convince even the most skeptical clinician. I soon learned that mere empiricism is no match for professional skepticism. On more than one occasion, I was told by a listener that the root of my problem was that I did not have a clinical practice and did not see clients on a regular basis; if I did, I would soon realize how completely wrong I was.

Both of these problems, however, gradually fade as you pay your dues and learn the customs in your new subculture. Unfortunately, the third problem only gets worse: keeping up with the literature. It is difficult enough to keep abreast with the ongoing developments in any one field; when you conduct cross-disciplinary research, however, you obviously need to stay current in multiple areas. This is a formidable problem, which has been exacerbated by the proliferation of psychological journals over the past two decades; I see no way around this problem, and simply accept it as a consequence of the life I have chosen.

Viewed from a larger perspective, these costs are not onerous, and they are more than outweighed by the benefits one obtains from cross-cutting research. It is worth noting, moreover, that these benefits largely are inseparable from the problems I noted earlier. Few things are more intellectually invigorating, for example, than having your basic scientific assumptions challenged. When that anonymous reviewer asserted that traits do not exist, this caused me to question my own assumptions and biases about the nature of personality; moreover, it stimulated me to conduct important new lines of research (e.g., on self-other agreement and long-term temporal stability) that were designed to establish the credibility of trait constructs.

Furthermore, scientific outsiders often offer fresh perspectives that can produce new insights into old problems; this largely may be due to the fact that problems arising in one area already have been resolved in another. For example, early structural models of mood emphasized the existence of discrete, specific emotions, such as fear and anger; our own research, however, established that similarly-valenced affects tend to co-occur, thereby producing general dimensions of negative mood (i.e., the nonspecific experience of negative feelings such as fear, sadness, and anger) and positive mood (i.e., nonspecific feelings of positive states such as joy, interest, and alertness). By the mid-1980s, the existence of these general dimensions was widely recognized by affect researchers. Around this same time, clinical investigators began to puzzle over the fact that indicators of depression and anxiety were strongly interrelated. To a mood researcher such as myself, it seemed obvious that this represented the same basic phenomenon: Because depression and anxiety are centered around the experience of the negative emotions of sadness and fear, respectively, they reflect this same nonspecific dimension of general negative affect. Thus, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and was able to apply the hard-earned wisdom of one area to an ongoing problem in another.

Finally, working across multiple areas keeps things fresh and interesting. At several points in my career, it became clear that that my thinking on a topic had become stagnant, and that I simply was unable to push it forward. At such times, it is a real pleasure to be able to put these problems aside for a time and to turn my attention to a new set of problems in a different area. I often find that this time away from a problem is exactly what I need to invigorate my thinking and to push things forward again.

As I said, I had no inkling of any of this when I began collecting those daily mood ratings in Kyoto, Japan, in 1979. In retrospect, thanks largely to my wife and my advisor, I unwittingly stumbled onto a topic that never grows tiresome to me, and that keeps taking me off into interesting new areas of research.

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