Melanie Arenson, BS Psychology 2015

Congratulations to Melanie Arenson, B.S. in Psychology 2015, who recently published a paper in Cognitive Science entitled, “Anthropocentric by Default? Attribution of Familiar and Novel Properties to Living Things.” Arenson is currently working at the University of California San Francisco, and the San Francisco VA Medical Center on projects studying PTSD and cardiovascular health and will be starting graduate school in the fall. Melanie shared with us her experience working with Prof. Coley and publishing the paper.

“While exploring potential tasks for a survey we were constructing, I became interested in the use of anthropocentric reasoning (a human-centered, similarity-based way of thinking) by adults. While it has been well-demonstrated that children use this way of thinking frequently, I wondered if it was a cognitive “default” that persisted over development (i.e. if adults used it at all), and if so, under what circumstances it was used. I brought the idea to Dr. Coley, and he encouraged me to design an experiment. With his guidance, I developed a task that would be completed under time pressure (which would restrict adults’ ability to access knowledge they had gained over their lifetime), hypothesizing that if anthropocentric reasoning was a “default” that was suppressed by knowledge and experience, it would be used by adults to a greater extent under time pressure. I was wrong. Time pressure had almost no effect. However, we did find a difference in its use between types of properties: adults did not use anthropocentric thinking to answer biological questions (such as “does ___ have a heart?”), but did use it to answer psychological questions (such as “can ___ feel happy?”). This made us wonder if having specific knowledge about the property mattered, so we ran more experiments, using both novel and known properties. Over the course of five years, we designed and ran four experiments, culminating in the paper accepted by Cognitive Science. Across those tasks, anthropocentric reasoning consistently emerged in contexts of uncertainty (i.e. novel properties, or psychological properties that did not have a scientifically “correct” answer). In fact, rather than being a “default”, our findings show that adults preferentially use anthropocentric reasoning for novel and psychological properties, suggesting it is a deliberately applied strategy in contexts where there is an absence of specific knowledge. This may have important implications for biology education – if anthropocentrism is a strategy, rather than a default, it suggests that it may be more easily rectified when it leads to misconceptions about the biological world.

As a student, this experience was critical to my own development. Prior to my time in Dr. Coley’s lab, I was firmly convinced I would have a purely clinical career trajectory. However, my work on this project reshaped my relationship with scientific research, and has inspired me to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology, and make research a major component of my career. Beyond its impact on my own aspirations, I believe this experience was instrumental in my ability to be a competitive applicant for PhD programs. I was able to speak knowledgeably about the scientific process, from the development of research questions through the publication process, because I had experienced them all myself.”

Well done, Melanie!