Washington University in St. Louis, USA
What does your research focus on?
I have very broad interests, but most of my research converges on the misperceptions we hold with regards to our cognitive functions. Examples of this include: false memory – how is it that we can come to believe we saw something that didn’t happen?; evaluations of test performance – what factors can influence whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about our performance on a test?; and study time allocation – why don’t we allocate more study time to material that is more likely to be forgotten?
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I have always been fascinated by the disconnect that so often occurs between objective reality (such as it might be, though we can never really measure it perfectly) and people’s self-perceptions. During my undergraduate studies, I also became intrigued by the pervasive fallibility of human memory, and our reluctance to accept this fact. So, bringing those two interests together, I decided to look at a variety of situations that produce erroneous metacognitive judgments, with a focus on the erroneous judgments we make about how memory functions.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I have been very lucky to have had wonderful mentors who were not only exciting researchers but also kind people. I was fortunate enough to work with Evan Heit and Kimberley Wade during my undergrad, with David Shanks for my PhD, and with Roddy Roediger and Kathleen McDermott for a post-doc. Kimberley’s “Psychology and Law” class was instrumental in shaping my research interests. I am particularly indebted to David who took a chance on me and my research project (false memory) even though it wasn’t his primary interest, and continues to endorse my work and support me in my career years after I have left his lab. Kathleen has helped me develop my theoretical analysis skills, and Roddy has been a huge inspiration as well as an amazingly understanding and supportive mentor. But I wouldn’t have embarked on this career was it not for Evan Heit, who recommended me for grad school even though he gave one of my papers the worst grade I would ever receive during my undergrad (though I’m sure he never realized how confusing that was to me!). I have also had some great collaborators who have kept me excited about my research, too many to name here, but in particular I am grateful to Rob Nash who has helped me continue thinking about the research I started during my PhD. In terms of broader Psychological influences, I also draw heavily from the cognitive biases tradition established by Tversky and Kahneman (see below in Q7).
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
This is where I’m supposed to say “hard work and determination”, right? I’m really not sure. Of course, my mentors have been a huge factor, helping me stay on the right track with my research goals. The fact that I really enjoy the whole process – from designing the experiment, programming it, collecting the data, analyzing the data (my favorite part!), and then writing up – means that the whole enterprise feels more like a hobby than a real job. I also learned a lot of timesaving techniques (for programming, data manipulation, etc.) through working for a decision-making consultancy, which has helped my productivity levels enormously.
What’s your future research agenda?
There are still various areas of Psychology that I would like to learn about before I settle on a narrow research agenda. I am currently working in a Clinical Psychology lab and learning all about the study of Personality – so this angle may show up in my work in the near future! Eventually I hope that I can bring my varied experiences together and create a lab with a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of memory and metacognition.
Any advice for even younger psychologists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Take your time to think about what it is that interests you and don’t get discouraged along the way if you feel like you still haven’t found your “thing” after a few years. Also, people skills are far more important in academia than you might imagine. You could probably get by as a hermit if you are very productive, but you’ll be more successful if you enjoy meeting new people and communicating your research.
Please write a sentence or two about the publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career. As challenging as it may be, please limit it to one publication.
I think my best publication so far is one that has received comparatively little attention – Weinstein, Y., & Roediger, H. L. (2010). Retrospective bias in test performance: Providing easy items at the beginning of a test makes students believe they did better on it. Memory & Cognition, 38, 366-376. This paper holds a special place in my heart because the idea for the very simple manipulation (changing the order of the questions on a test to see how that affects evaluations of performance) came to me while I was watching an inspirational talk by Daniel Kahneman at my very first Psychonomics meeting (in 2008). I also think the results are pretty striking, and the original experiment spurned a whole line of research that I am currently in the process of writing up.