Last week, I had the honor of attending the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), the flagship international conference for novel social psychological research. Besides a beautiful conference-sponsored 5K during the sunrise and a trip to the world-famous Aquarium of the Pacific (pictures below), I had the chance to attend a series of symposia related to cyberpsychology that suggested an increasing trend toward the integration of social psychological research and technology.
Even if I weren't highly biased (which, let's face it, I am), this would be an exciting development in the name of STEM research and, more specifically, a rise in demand for interdisciplinary science.
If one theme could be chosen to integrate each of SPSP's many symposia, it would have to be the ever-rising issue of scientific integrity and, more generally, the future of our field. The presidential address discussed issues of replicability and data falsification, interspersed with acknowledgements of p-hacking and "storytelling" (i.e., interpreting counterintuitive, and often inaccurate, findings in such a way that they fit with existing research -- the article is novel and exciting without raising too many eyebrows as to the veracity of its claims, even if those claims later cannot be replicated).
Although many have claimed that these crises are not, in actuality, crises, increasing attention from funding agencies has combined with ever-tightening restrictions among top journals to create a nature that is, at best, cut-throat within our field. Possibly the most depressing symposium that I attended addressed the many landmark findings that, over the course of decades, have taken root in our theories, practices, and understanding of basic human sociality -- and that many of these landmark findings have never since been replicated, suggesting that outside of a highly controlled lab filled with (often upper-class, White, clearly educated) college students, these phenomena might not be generalizable at all.
Even so, it must be acknowledged that (unlike three or four years ago) gone are the days when highly esteemed social psychologists would stand on a podium and chastise their listeners for engaging in questionable scientific practices: in many symposia, researchers would openly confess to struggling with replicability, understanding when a participant warranted exclusion from further analyses, or changing hypotheses a posteriori to tell a story connecting directly contradictory findings.
These confessions did not do much to encourage the young researchers among us, who are faced with the choice to engage in pure, truthful, and highly messy basic research or (because one must choose between these alternatives) to get tenure. This problem will remain a grave one for the foreseeable future, but with hope, both journals and funding agencies will adopt new strategies to embrace science for all its contradictions and fleeting phenomena, such as accepting an article prior to data collection due to the importance and theoretical impact of its key questions.
Bridging academia and industry
Tenure was not, however, on everyone's mind: A number of symposia and pre-conference sessions discussed the bridging of academic and non-academic jobs, including government, NGOs, non-profit sectors, and organizations that greatly value the skills gained from a Ph.D. in social psychology. Many speakers were Ph.D. holders who had "gone to the other side" within the last 10 years, and were now speaking about their experiences -- the pros, the cons, and all that we, as doctoral students so encased in the ivory tower, rarely see firsthand. It is my hope that this trend continues, particularly as the ratio of Ph.D.s granted continues to far outweigh the number of open academic jobs around the world.
Alternative data sources
From smartphone apps to Facebook apps, government datasets to API-sourced Tweets, this year's convention heavily stressed the importance of alternative sources of data in our research -- that is, data that is not restricted to WEIRD participants (i.e., White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic -- and hailing almost exclusively from college-aged convenience samples). Symposium speakers pointed listeners in the direction of publicly available, open-source apps built for experience sampling, or presented lists of large-scale datasets of particular participant features (e.g., personality characteristics and Facebook usage statistics).
And on a related note to Facebook, another key theme during this year's conference was Facebook -- Facebook as a possible career path for social psychologists, Facebook as a source of (big -- very big) data, Facebook as a topic of research among many graduate students. Indeed, a number of symposium speakers were current Facebook interns or employees, one of whom presented on the necessity of the interdisciplinary and ever-rising field of Computational Social Science, or the study of complex social systems (e.g., social psychology) and their investigation through computational modeling and related, technology-driven questions. Symposia such as these pave the way for increasingly interdisciplinary research, and help to redirect attention toward the often single-sided nature of our field. To increase cross-discipline collaboration, we must learn the vocabulary and methodologies of others -- the changes in question formation and research dissemination, the differences in past theories and phenomena. As we continue to develop this relationship with other fields, whether they be computational in nature or no, we can only expect good things for social psychology as a whole.
As a last and smaller note, the use of open-source software such as R was pivotal to many symposia, including a symposia that exclusively addressed its importance and user friendliness to social scientists. Gone seem to be the days of SAS, but that doesn't mean focus is moving exclusively toward Mplus and the ever-present, point-and-click SPSS -- instead, gaining experience with R syntax will be a great benefit for anyone in, or seeking a career from, graduate school in psychology.