Emma Henderson née Yauner (LEH 1983-1994)
In October 2015, after fifteen years of working in the fashion industry, I returned to university to study psychology. Having gained my masters and spent time as a research associate, I started a PhD in social cognitive psychology in October 2017. Years of persuading customers such as Boots and M&S to buy sunglasses had made me curious about the mechanisms and theories underlying methods of persuasion. Simultaneously the current political context stimulated me to consider how truth is communicated to the public, and how we make decisions about what is true and what’s not. Inspired by these questions, I undertook a PhD investigating truth judgements and truth effects.
We receive an inexorable bombardment of information daily, via dozens of media channels both sought out by the user and foisted upon them. It is a natural psychological by-product of this info-saturated society that we should develop heuristics to parse what is useful and true, and what information should be discarded. However, those unconscious techniques don’t always steer us towards the correct answer. There can be severe downstream consequences to adhering to these heuristics, especially when the creators and writers of the information being parsed understand their audience and can manipulate them. Important decisions and behaviours, such as those relating to medical care, nutrition, or political voting may be based on these manipulable heuristics rather than facts. So it’s vital we attend to understanding how we may be manipulated, and this is the basis of my doctorate.
My research looks at how superficial characteristics that provide no objective truth are used to inform truth judgements. In the absence of knowledge about an unfamiliar topic, the perceived truth of a statement can be influenced by signals that provide no intrinsic information about truth. I focus on two specific truth effects: The first is the illusory truth effect; statements become more believable with repetition. The second truth effect is the linguistic concreteness effect whereby concretely written statements are believed to be more likely to be true than abstract versions of the same content.
I entered academia at a time when the field of psychology is considered to have a “replication crisis”. Classic experiments such as the “marshmallow test” are failing to replicate when attempts are made by researchers from outside the original research team. I prefer to think about this as a “renaissance” (Nelson, Simmons, & Simonsohn, 2018) or “credibility revolution” (Vazire, 2018) and an opportunity to implement robust research practices, such as large-scale replication attempts. Many philosophers of science have argued that the ability to repeat experiments and obtain similar results is the demarcation between science and non-science, and that process can elevate a single observation to evidence.
In the first experiment of my PhD I am carrying out a replication of an experiment about the linguistic concreteness effect. This effect has been widely cited in both the scientific literature and in the press. It is therefore essential that we have better evidence for this effect than what we have now: a single paper based on a small population of student participants.
My replication uses a large population of both students and non-students, and is a collaboration between Kingston University and the University of Illinois, USA. A side effect of large participant numbers is the need for larger funds to pay them. Funding for PhD research is scarce, and students typically look to external funders to fund their work.
I was extremely lucky to receive the LEH Alumnae Award to support my first experiment. Without this award it would have been very hard to recruit the same number of participants and produce such a robust piece of scientific work. In short, without the award I would not have been able to practice such good science. Data collection is ongoing so I do not yet have the results, but cannot wait to share them.
Emma’s work has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (Collabra: Psychology).