Washington University, USA
What does your research focus on?
My research is focused on the cognitive processes that are involved in regulating memory and learning. Much of my research targets how metacognition is used to guide learning. Specifically, I’m interested in identifying the biases that affect how people make assessments about their knowledge, and how these biases affect decisions about learning. Recently, I have been working on understanding the mechanisms involved in memory retrieval, and in particular the role that reconsolidation and post retrieval processes may play in strengthening memory after retrieval.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that our memories — and how we think about and evaluate them — make us who we are. Metacognition is intriguing to me because we use it to interpret the content of our minds, and also to have some control over what the content is. The mistakes that we sometimes make in our metacognitive evaluations can reveal what characteristics of an experience are most salient or important to us.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
My graduate advisor, Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University, was, and continues to be, an incredibly important influence and mentor. While I was at Columbia, I also had the wonderful chance to collaborate with Tory Higgins, which expanded my thinking about metacognition into the social domain. During my post doc at Washington University I have had the opportunity to be mentored by such great thinkers as Henry (Roddy) Roediger, Kathleen McDermott, and Larry Jacoby. Outside of the labs I have worked in directly, the work of William James, Frederic Bartlett, Daniel Kahneman, and Asher Koriat have been important influences on my thinking about how we remember and how we evaluate what we know.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
Any success that I could possibly claim at this point is due to my generous advisors and colleagues and to my supportive family. I have been extremely fortunate to work with and draw inspiration from mentors whose combined experience, creativity, and knowledge have helped shape my research. I’ve also had a steady stream of incredible labmates over the years.
What’s your future research agenda?
I plan to continue exploring how we remember and learn. For example, how and why are memories strengthened following their reactivation? I’ve also recently started exploring how affective responses to different learning experiences can influence how we make future study decisions. For example, some of my projects have shown that metamemory judgments are particularly sensitive to memory failures, and that this sensitivity has an important impact on future study choices. I’m also interested in how students value the process and the outcomes of learning. Is it rewarding to successfully retrieve information from memory? Is it more or less rewarding when the correct answer comes to mind easily as compared to when the process is more effortful?
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
I’ve always found it really useful to pay attention to scholarship in other areas. I enjoy hearing talks in the philosophy and political science departments, as well as in other areas of psychology. A number of my research ideas came from tuning in to work going on in judgment and decision-making fields. Hearing from other disciplines has helped me to think in a more rich and complex way about my own questions in psychology and gave me a larger set of tools for thinking up experimental manipulations and for analyzing data.
Take a risk now and then. If you’re lucky you’ll have a mentor who will let you try a risky idea out — and it might just work out. Just make sure that you’ve also got a steady stream of solid, workhorse projects that will help to pay the bills.
Keep at it! Your writing, your thinking, your talks, your ideas for experiments — all will get better with experience.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Finn, B. & Roediger, H. L. (2011). Enhancing retention through reconsolidation: Negative emotional arousal following retrieval enhances later recall. Psychological Science, 22, 787-794.
In this paper we explored the role that reconsolidation may play in strengthening a memory following its reactivation. We found that emotional events that occur just after retrieval enhance later recall, implicating a process of reconsolidation whereby memories are subject to modification upon their reactivation. One of the reasons that I like this paper is because it attempted to synthesize findings from several areas of psychology (neurobiology, animal learning, human memory, and emotion) to get at the central question of why retrieval benefits memory. The research also broadened my thinking about the nature of memory retrieval in general — asinvolving a period of processing that follows successful retrieval in addition to the processes involved in the retrieval attempt.