I’m an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma. There are two basic components to my job—teaching and research. I teach four classes each year: two are psychology classes, one is a professional writing class (Writing Young Adult Fiction), and one is an honors seminar called The Cognitive Science of Fiction, which brings together research and discourse from a variety of different disciplines to ask big questions about the science of fiction and why we like it. We read a lot of philosophy in that class (Aristotle and Hume, they had lots of thoughts on fiction!), plus psychology, media studies, literary criticism, and more. In general, the class challenges students to think about how we can use the scientific method to design studies that ask big questions about why people like fiction, how we interact with it, and what kinds of effects engaging with fiction might subsequently have on the way we view the world and our real-world biases, beliefs, and cognitive abilities.
The reason I chose to teach a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, when the university told me that I could teach any class I wanted for my honors seminar, is that it is my area of research (and also a huge passion!). As a psychology professor, in addition to teaching, I actually conduct research experiments. The way this usually works is that I will develop a question—based on prior research, or my own observations, or questions people are raising in the publishing industry—and then I brainstorm different answers to that question and design a method that will allow me to distinguish between those different answers. And then once I get the answers, I often discover that my gut instinct was wrong, and I revise my theory, and use the new theory to generate a question, and test it all over again!
So, for example, in my lab currently we’re doing a ton of different experiments. Some of them are online (some of you may have even participated in them, if you follow me on twitter), while others take place in my lab. One of the lab studies we’re doing right now is on what they call the “paradox of tragedy,” which is basically says (1) people avoid negative emotions like sadness, (2) tragic fictional stories make people feel sad, and (3) people seek out tragic fictional stories. To get out of the paradox, you presumably have to deny one of the three premises. But which one do you deny?
Philosophers have argued about this for a very long time (hello, Aristotle! Hello, Hume!), but in my lab, we’re exploring one class of answers to this question, which depends on meta-emotions, or how you feel about how you feel. Basically, we’re looking at whether people feel good about themselves for feeling sad, and whether you can push around liking for tragedy by making people feel guilty beforehand.
My lab also does a variety of other research on topics like: what is the cognitive profile of the professional fiction writer and how do they differ from non-writers and from voracious readers; how do we become attached to fictional characters and how intense are these attachments; what can fanfiction tell us about the cognitive science of fiction and why people like stories; how does fictional morality differ from real-world morality; how does reading fiction versus nonfiction differentially affect our abilities to read social and nonsocial situations? And MORE.
Basically, I have the freedom to research whatever I find interesting, and I find the way we interact with fictional worlds to be fascinating. The awesome thing about being involved in psychological research is that there is a psychology of EVERYTHING. If there are people involved, there is psychology involved. So I have been able to combine my passion for fiction and my experiences as a YA writer with my academic research.
As for how I got started, I first got into psychology research as an undergraduate. Freshman year, a friend talked me into going to work in the “monkey lab,” which studied how monkey cognition was similar to and different from human cognition. Mostly, I wanted to play with monkeys. And spend summers on Monkey Island, off the coast of puerto rico. But I got addicted to what I consider the very core of scientific research to be: asking questions and systematically testing answers. I am constantly surprised by the way research turns out, but that is why research is so important! Because some of the things we assume are true are not true, and research helps us find answers and—above all—use those answers to create even MORE QUESTIONS.
So, long story short, I got involved with designing experiments and also started volunteering in other research labs, too. I took a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, taught by Paul Bloom, who later became my PhD advisor, and got super interested in the topic. Then after I graduated (with a degree in cognitive science), I went and did a one-year research-based masters at Cambridge, where I did autism research. My advisor there was super supportive and suggested I do something on fiction and autism. So I did. And then I did some more research on that topic. And then I came back to the states and did a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. My dissertation was on how kids’ story preferences and adults’ story preferences are affected by the social content in the stories, among other things.
So basically, I lucked into finding a field I love because I was blessed to work with some very passionate professors when I was an undergraduate. And now I am a very passionate professor who works with undergraduate and graduate students to do research on fiction and stories and storytelling.