SASSC The Expert Interview
April 28, 2016
Nicole: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. Could you begin with a brief introduction about yourself?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: I am a research track assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Northeastern University, and I work closely with Lisa Barrett as part of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. My research focuses on decision making, and largely on emotion perception as a decision. In some cases, I study how affective states, or emotional states, will influence decisions. I model the costs and benefits of being right or wrong, and uncertainties involved with identifying what state somebody is in. I model that mathematically, and then do experiments to follow up on the models.
Nicole: You started out working with animals and now you are studying human emotions and decision making. Could you talk a little bit about your path to your current line of research?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: My background is in behavioral ecology; my PhD is in evolutionary biology, and as a behavioral ecologist, there was a lot of field and laboratory work with animals. My work was always on the interface between behavioral ecology and comparative psychology–animal learning and cognition. As I was looking for post doc opportunities, there were a lot of really interesting opportunities with humans, doing biological psychology, and research in psychiatric populations, and that’s how I got started working with humans. I got into emotion through working in psychiatric research. It developed from that and now I do entirely human research.
Nicole: And what drew you to your current line of research, studying decision making and emotion perception?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: Emotion perception is a really good system to work in for the kind of decision making that I’m interested in because there is a lot of perceptual uncertainty, where you don’t know what somebody else’s mental state is, and you have to make your best guess about it. There are lots of possible things that people could be thinking or feeling, and you have to make a guess about that based on your current social goals. And then there are real costs and benefits to being right or wrong about the conclusions you draw, and the subsequent behavior that you elect to do next, based on your conclusions. There are lots of individual differences, potentially, that could affect how people go about making these decisions, and how they evaluate these possible costs and benefits in outcomes, and likelihoods of encountering people in their past or in the present who are in particular emotional states; all of these factors that kind of go into making a decision. Emotion perception is a really rich domain to work in to explore that kind of decision making.
Nicole: That’s really interesting. What are some of the central findings of your work, or your central discoveries?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: One of the things that I’m most excited about following up on right now is an idea that comes out of the mathematics of signal detection theory. Let’s say that you, as a perceiver, have a poor ability to discriminate different emotional states–poor perceptual sensitivity, that would be called–and that you are in an environment where you should be somewhat biased (for example you are detecting social threats in your environment and it is the case that you should be biased to say that something is threatening, because, say, threats are very common in the environment therefore it’s very expensive to miss a threat). Then, if it is the case that you should be biased in your environment, and you have low ability to discriminate threats from non-threats, then the mathematics of signal detection theory say that you should be much more biased than somebody who has better sensitivity, better ability to discriminate threats from non-threats. I think that relationship is really interesting. Some people are very good at adapting their bias to declining sensitivity, and other people aren’t. And I’m curious as to why that is–what is it about some people that makes them good at this, and what are the conditions under which people find it difficult to make that kind of adaptation to their behavior. So that’s one of the things that I think is really neat, and novel, that’s come out of my research.
Nicole: Super interesting. Could you give an example of situations in which there would be a higher cost or a lower cost to make an incorrect decision with emotion perception?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: If we are talking about just emotion perception, then the costs and benefits are to the perceiver making the decision. One way to think about this is in children who are growing up in abusive or neglectful environments. Those are environments in which it is costly to make a misdetection of social threat, because you will get punished harshly for making a miss. But if you don’t miss, if you detect a threat when it is eminent, then maybe you can engage in some kind of behavior that will minimize that threat. So you can apologize, or you can exhibit some kind of appeasement behavior that will mitigate the threat. But a miss is very costly in that situation. But in a non-abusive household, that miss isn’t as costly, that punishment isn’t as harsh (sort of by definition, because it’s not as abusive). That is a real world example of the cost of a missed detection, but there is also costs of false alarms. A child who grew up in an abusive household, but now, as an adult, is out of that environment, or who goes to school and is not in an abusive environment at the school, may still continue to have this very low threshold for saying that there is a threat in the environment, but will make lots of false alarms now in this other environment, where they will be responding to things as if they are threats but they’re not really threats. That is a very different kind of cost, and so there is lots of this appeasement behavior that will be produced, but unnecessarily. And so that makes for maybe awkward social situations, or maybe embarrassment on the part of the perceiver. So, very different kinds of costs. And in a lot of emotion perception experiments, these costs and benefits aren’t explored.
Nicole: That sounds like a really important application for your work and a great avenue for exploration. What do you see in store for the future of emotion research or affective science. Is there anything you think that the field is moving towards?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: As we think we know more about how the brain works, it’s an exciting time. There is really so little known about how the brain works. That is going to really be a great place to be. Not that people should go into neuroscience, per se–like, that’s not my main focus. My focus is organismal behavior. How does the organism, a human, make a functional decision that’s good for the whole organism? And so that’s less about the neural mechanism promoting that kind of decision making. So an organismal perspective is another perspective to take that I think has a lot room for growth in the field. It is less mechanistic than genetics, or molecular biology, or neuro-circuitry, and (for me) more focused on: how does an organism make a “goal,” and does it make sense to talk about goals and decision making at multiple levels of biological organization? And, what do you get if you treat every behavior as a kind of decision? And how does affect guide those decisions? What’s the role of affective and emotional categories in goal maintenance or formation. So I think there is reason to get excited about going very mechanistically but also very functionally, at the organismal level.
Nicole: What do you think is something that’s wrong with psychology or affective science? And how can we fix it?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: I think that there are still very strong subdomains of psychological science that don’t have a whole lot of cross-talk between them. I said I am working in social psychology now, and I say that partly only because the team of people that I work most closely with are in the social psychology unit within the department I am in. But the work I do cuts across those kinds of boundaries (such as social psychology, cognitive psychology, biological psychology, and comparative psychology). And, you know, I’ve not got the depth of somebody, in any of those domains, that was trained and came up doing research only within one of those domains. But I think there is a benefit to cutting across those domains as well. I think maybe that one the limitations of the current psychological field is that there’s not enough promotion of research across domains like that.
Nicole: Now we’ll be switching gears a bit, and start to talk about academics more generally. What have you found to be some of the most rewarding aspects of your career?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: Finding new results that are exciting, that’s very rewarding. Working with students who are really interested, who develop an interest, and to help that interest develop, and train them in things that could be useful, that’s rewarding too. Really, working with people in a laboratory environment, that’s the best. The research is a lot of fun, except when it’s not (laughs), it gets tedious, you know? So the people around you are important.
Nicole: We all have had experiences with the stress of academia, and have different strategies for managing it. What do you do to maintain a work-life balance?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: I have two kids–I have a boy and girl, nine year old twins. The work-life balance has really changed since they were born; it’s become much more of something that I have to think about. Whereas before kids, you could work as much as you wanted, and it was fun, and you could work late, and then go out with friends that you were working with. But with kids, it really does bring the whole work-life balance into a different domain. I try to leave work at work, but you know, I do work a late night a week, often, and if it’s grant writing season, then sometimes there’s a weekend that’s thrown in. But I try to be really present when I’m with my family and leave the work in the lab.
Nicole: Yes, definitely. What advice would you give to graduate students or undergraduate students working towards careers in academia, or affective science?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: Learn how to program a computer. I work with a lot of people who don’t have programming experience. Particularly in affective science, and people who are interested in affective neuroscience, the more programming and math you can learn, the more competitive you will be against the vast sea of trainees that are out there looking for similar positions. So, learn how to program. It’s easy to get the basics, and there are lots of websites where you can teach yourself. Or you could take a class–that’s a great way to get started and be motivated by having to earn a grade.
My background is relatively diverse, and that can be a benefit, but has costs too. I bring a lot of outside knowledge, like about behavioral ecology and decision making, to emotion perception, which is a pretty novel perspective. But at the same time, it was a struggle to create a narrative about my training background that made sense to other people and that was attractive to funding agencies, for example. From my perspective, my career is kind of a straight-line path, but you know, to anyone else, there’s work with dolphins, and parrots, and bumblebees, and C. elegans, and mice, and humans, and it doesn’t all look like it’s about mathematical modeling in decision making and emotion. So diversity can be great, but keep an eye on what it looks like externally, to other people.
Nicole: To what do you attribute your success in the field?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: To the people that I’ve worked with. We have these ideas that good ideas rise to the top and hard work gets you wherever you want to go, but there’s a whole social side to science. And so what success I’ve had is partly due to me but is also very much due to the peers and mentors that I’ve had and things I’ve learned from them or going to conferences with them and people I’ve met, things like that.
Nicole: Who should we be reading as graduate students? Is there anyone that you’ve read that’s really influenced you or changed the way that you’ve thought about science, that you would recommend?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: I might say Patricia Churchland is somebody who I think is a great writer and I remember getting really fired up about neuroscience and decision making when I was reading her work, and its not unrelated to affective science. George Lakoff, in cognitive linguistics, was also influential. But that’s all pretty dated at this point. More recently, take a look at Jakob Hohwy’s very approachable introduction to predictive coding.
Nicole: And what’s on the horizon for your research? Is there anything that we should be expecting from you? Anything new, exciting or different?
Dr. Spencer Lynn: I’m working on some behavioral analysis techniques that I’m very excited about, to get at perceivers’ estimates of environmental parameters. These are parameters that are in models that describe the environment the perceiver is in. I’m excited for that.
Nicole: Great. That’s all I had, and thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. It was great hearing more about your research.
Dr. Spencer Lynn: Thanks very much, Nicole.