Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Theory

Graduate school is a special time in an intellectual's life. It is a rarefied opportunity to acquire lofty knowledge that will serve the scholar for years to come. One develops skills to discern which professors are least likely to assign copious amounts of work. One figures out which secretary to cozy up to so dissertation paperwork will get signed and submitted by deadlines. One learns what to answer in a psychological battery to appear dangerously psychotic, and wonder if the professor will refer said person to university counseling. One can have a little clean fun with the non-English-speaking professor by loudly repeating in class her same obscene-sounding mispronounciations of statistical theories. One  identifies the professors closest to retirement to put on a dissertation committee. One might even realize that a dissertation chair with a reputation for ethical lapses might make the perfect dissertation chair.

One thing that is not learned in six years of doctoral study is anything about the actual subject being studied. That is reserved for a very special post-doc period called "studying for the licensing exams." These magical months, spent almost exclusively in the company of flash cards, practice tests, CDs, and used study guides, is not only reserved for psychology Ph.Ds, however: My attorney and physician friends will also have flashbacks recalling this time.

I was going to include a clever paragraph about how, while studying, I felt like I was embodying most  of the theories I was memorizing--attributing the gist of a one-sentence overview of someone's lifelong theory to describe my experience. Similar to how medical students convince themselves that they have symptoms of every obscure disease they read about. But, sadly, another hallmark of the infamous "licensing-exam-cram" is that as soon as the examinations are finished, the information is apparently no longer available in either short- or long-term memory. Especially if you were, say, nine-months pregnant for the national exam (with the only bathroom outside, through the courtyard, and take a left), and nursing every two hours for the state exam (talk about incentive to finish a three-hour exam quickly). I know there are all sorts of theories about information processing and encoding that explain why these facts have such a short shelf-life in one's brain, but I really don't recall the specifics of those theories. I vaguely recall some theories involving unsuspecting students administering electric shock, and other unsuspecting students being imprisoned. Psychological researchers sure are a misanthropic bunch.

However, I am proud to say that after six years of graduate school, thousands of hours of pre- and post-doctoral training, and hours of standardized tests with cut-throat pass rates, I do indeed recall two theories. Actually, apparently not so much "theories" as "effects." The first one is the Zeigarnik Effect. The gist of the ZE is that we tend to continue to think about tasks that we have not completed. So if you are working on a complicated project at work, for example, it will plague you until you have finished it. I suppose this makes sense, except clearly Dr. Zeigarnik did not have a sufficient sampling of true obsessors in his research study. For those of us who would be outliers for Zeigarnik's bell curve, there is always a reason to continue to ruminate over a task, even if it has been completed, graded, published, and engraved in stone somewhere.

The other effect comes from Dr. Garcia, a researcher who perhaps was a childhood finicky eater (an early "foodie" perhaps?) and made it his life's mission to prove to his mother that he wasn't trying to personally shame her by not eating his vegetables. Cue "The Garcia Effect." This theory posits that we develop aversions to certain foods--and similar foods--after a bad experience with said food. So if you ever became physically ill after eating, let's say, cottage cheese, you may have a lifelong, literal distaste for cottage cheese. And, perhaps, yogurt or rice pudding. This is one of a long line of social science theories that is seemingly so self-evident, any parent of a three-year old could have come up with it. The example that is commonly given to illustrate this theory is that someone who has a bad experience with tangerines may also avoid oranges and clementines. Considering most of us cannot tell the difference among these three fruits, I would say it is a safe bet we would avoid all of them if any of them ever sickened us.

I have my own theory about social science research theories: Most researchers could save years of effort running complex statistical models if they would spend five minutes around actual people. Or, more specifically, children. My daughter was once greatly traumatized by a smidgeon of basil on her penne-with-butter at a 5-star restaurant. Had it not been for our dear Dr. Garcia, I would never have been able to anticipate that the mere sight of a single sesame seed, spice, or herb would be enough to ask the waiter to extract the offending particle with surgical tweezers. And if I ever want to see my child's face drained of all color, I merely have to ask if she would like to have some pineapple. "Remember I tried pineapple and didn't like it?" she agitatedly reminds me... Yes, in 2008--a half a lifetime ago! Well done, Dr. Garcia, well done. Hmmm. I have a readymade sample to observe (my kids) and a Ph.D. in psychology. I am going to obsess (thanks, Dr. Zeigarnik) until I come up with my own Effect.

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