2020 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Jennifer Trueblood

Vanderbilt University
Computational Decision-Making Lab

Please briefly describe your research interests.

My research is aimed at understanding how people make decisions when faced with multiple alternatives, how changing information affects decision processes, and how people reason about complex events. To address these questions, I use computational cognitive modeling to formalize hypotheses and then test these with behavioral experiments.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

My current research program is the product of a serious of very fortunate events. As an undergraduate student at Indiana University, I studied music (vocal performance, specifically) and math. When I started college, my goal was to become an opera singer. However, towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I took a few courses in cognitive science and realized that my real interest was in studying human behavior. While I had an interest in human cognition, I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in psychology, cognitive science, or neuroscience. When applying to graduate school, I applied solely to math PhD programs except at Indiana University where I applied to a joint PhD program in math and cognitive science. Luckily, I was admitted and decided to stay at IU. During the first two years of my PhD, my primary academic home was math, but I was itching to become more involved in the cognitive science program. After speaking with Rob Goldstone, one of the cognitive science program directors at the time, he directed me to Jerome Busemeyer. From Jerome, I learned about the well-established and exciting field of mathematical psychology! After a long twisting road, I had finally found a home. I finished out the remaining years of my PhD with Jerome as my adviser. He taught me how mathematical models can be used to understand how humans make decisions.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

My proudest accomplishments have been in applying the theories developed in the lab to real world decision problems. For example, my colleagues and I have been using a combination of machine learning and cognitive modeling to understand why errors occur in medical image-based decision-making. In partnership with the pathology department at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we’ve discovered that prior information (including irrelevant information) can impact the interpretation of cell images. This work has important implications for AI and automated systems that are being developed to support human medical image classification and decision-making.

In another line of research, I’ve been using quantum cognition to provide a new perspective on legal decision-making. This research started when I was a graduate student at Indiana University. During my PhD, I conducted several studies examining people’s judgments in hypothetical jury scenarios and showed that people’s beliefs can be explained by models constructed using quantum probability theory. Even though “quantum probability theory” might sound like a strange thing to apply to human behavior, it is a powerful framework for developing psychological theories because it naturally accommodates contextual and sequential effects. Fast forwarding several years, I was teaching a graduate course in judgment and decision-making at Vanderbilt and one my students, who also had a JD, was very keen to share these ideas with the legal community. What initially started as a course project, turned into a law review paper and book chapter illustrating how quantum cognition provides a new perspective to the field of “behavioral law and economics”.

In the above examples, there are many important factors that contributed to their success. One of the most important factors was learning how to work with an interdisciplinary research team. For the medical decision-making project, it was critical for me to learn more about the job of a pathologist (that is, actually sitting in the lab and seeing how slides are examined under a microscope). Also, it was very important for me to learn how to explain theoretical ideas from psychology to physicians (there is a surprising amount of jargon in our discipline!). While these experiences have been challenging, they have also been some of the most rewarding in my career.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

I feel very fortunate to have worked with an outstanding advisor during graduate school, Jerome Busemeyer, excellent collaborators, as well as supportive colleagues at both the University of California, Irvine and Vanderbilt University. I feel that I have learned so much from my colleagues and collaborators over the years. Collectively, they’ve had an enormous impact on my career path. I’m also extremely grateful for my supportive network of colleagues through Women of Mathematical Psychology and Women in Cognitive Science groups. These groups have been instrumental in helping me navigate different aspects of my professional career.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

Lately, I’ve been thinking broadly about how we build better theories of human decision-making. Over the past decades, there have been numerous formal theories of decision-making proposed. Right now, we don’t have a good sense of how these theories are related. Are there common principles shared by multiple theories? Can ideas from different theories be combined to build better ones? In addition, can we look to advances in machine learning to construct joint cognitive and machine learning models to further advance theories of human decision-making and to build better predictive models of human behavior?

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Professionally, I’m extremely honored by this award. I am very humbled to be listed among so many inspiring and outstanding scholars. Personally, it is very exciting to receive this award alongside my colleague at Vanderbilt, Kate Humphreys. I am also very grateful to my family and friends for their love and support through every step of my career. I especially want to thank my husband, William Holmes, for his unwavering encouragement over the years and his willingness to join forces to collaborate on many projects.