By Angie Wang
Stanford psychology majors are collaborating with department faculty in research projects on topics including empathy’s role in the criminal justice system, cystic fibrosis and cross-cultural understanding of well-being.
Running from June 25 to Aug. 31, the Psych-Summer Research Program affords undergraduates an opportunity to develop their research skills and familiarizes them with academic work under the guidance of a faculty member. Psych-Summer program participants work full time through the duration of summer quarter and earn a $7000 stipend.
Mind and Body Lab
In the program last summer, Michelle Chang ’20 worked in the Mind and Body Lab with professor Alia Crum. She said that the program was an excellent hands-on opportunity that allowed students to understand the procedures and realities of psychology research.
While Chang had worked on planning studies and doing data analysis in the past, the program allowed her to work on tasks ranging from administrative work to interacting with research subjects to collecting data that, for her, made the study come to life.
“It always felt like each day presented new challenges and new unexpected moments,” Chang said. “But the joy and beauty of figuring out those moments and really putting myself in the mindset of a researcher was definitely a huge gift from the program.”
Chang also mentioned the importance of the community of research-minded students and faculty created by the program.
“One other thing I’ve taken away from this program is soaking up the gratitude of having so many people who are invested in not just how I research, but also my personal growth,” Chang said.
After the program ended, Chang presented her work at various conferences, including at a Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in Atlanta and an Association for Psychological Science conference in San Francisco.
This year, Chang was awarded the Beagle II Award to facilitate her academic exploration. She is currently spearheading her own study, the Death Cafe movement. Though not a part of the Psych-Summer Research Program this year, Chang travels the country to host spaces for strangers to come together and talk about topics like mortality and death.
Examining emotional communication through facial expressions
In a project mentored by psychology professor Jamil Zaki, Michael Smith ’19 is working to understand facial expressions’ correlation with emotional communication. He says that the program has also inspired him to consider publishing his work and to get started on his senior honors thesis.
As a Symbolic Systems major, Smith used his computer science background to animate videos through a computational model, which can identify the most important lines of the human face and follow a person’s facial changes as he or she speaks and makes expressions. The model ultimately creates a rudimentary animation of the person’s facial features, according to Smith.
Smith uses his model to analyze videos of subjects telling positive, negative or neutral stories.
“We are able to just look at faces and understand, to some reasonable correlation, that this is [the emotion] someone’s feeling,” Smith said. “So far, we found that when we [look at just the mouth], that is actually more correlated with emotion ratings than the full face, or just the eyes, or just the jaw.”
According to Smith, there was one participant for which there existed at least an 80 percent correlation between mouth movements associated with a particular emotion, and that emotion.
Additionally, Smith said that people of different cultures and conditions tend to focus on different areas of the face when detecting emotion.
“Folks in Eastern areas of the world tend to focus on the eyes, folks in the Western world are in between the eyes and the mouth,” Smith said. “Folks with autism usually focus more on the mouth.”
Smith said he has found a moderately positive correlation between the facial and emotional expression.
While his current model for expression detection can be disrupted by glasses or subjects not looking directly at the camera, Smith aims to improve the model throughout the summer.
Probing political psychology
“[For] the students who work with me, often this is the first experience that they have working a 40-hour job that really is demanding high-quality thinking from them in creative ways about science,” communication and political science professor Jon Krosnick said.
Krosnick, whose work focuses on how Americans’ political attitudes develop and change, is working with ten undergraduates this summer, some hailing from summer programs run by other departments. His research topics are often interdisciplinary, connecting topics such as psychology, public opinion, history of law, public policy and statistics.
In one project, Krosnick and his students are studying American public opinion on global warming. Specifically, they aim to examine how language choice in surveys on the issue affect perception. For example, he mentioned the confusion between the labels “global warming” and “climate change.”
“There’s been an interest in understanding how Americans react to those labels … how use of one label or another changes how people think about the issue politically,” Krosnick said. “We’re doing some experimentation to ask questions with different wordings and look at how people react.”
Krosnick’s team is also exploring hypotheses related to media “agenda-setting,” which is when news organizations elect to emphasize an issue by offering it additional coverage. Viewers then attach importance to the said issue and pressure the government to act. Ultimately, this hypothesis concludes that media has some power to control government.
“We’re gathering up new ways to measure what the media have paid attention to, and we’re going to use some statistics to test whether the hypothesis is correct,” Krosnick said.
Krosnick’s work on political psychology has also suggested that the order of candidates’ names on ballots affects election outcomes. This summer, his team is working on a historical analysis to understand why different states have different ballot order policies as well as to what extent Americans are aware of this systemic bias.
“Americans, for the most part, are not aware about [this phenomenon] and the scientific evidence that suggests there is a way to prevent bias,” Krosnick said.
The Psych-Summer Research Program will hold a poster session held on Aug. 23 displaying the work of its participants.
Contact Angie Wang at 19awang ‘at’ castilleja.org