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DOI: 10.1177/1745691613497967

2013 8: 549Perspectives on Psychological Science Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner

Six Guidelines for Interesting Research

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by Jamie Hughes on September 15, 2013pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(5) 549 –553 © The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/1745691613497967

“We know the truth not only by reason, but by the heart.” (#282, Pascal, 1670)

Composing music isn’t hard. Just sit down at a keyboard, press a few white and black keys, and voilà!—you’re a maestro. Admittedly, there are rules regarding keys, time signatures, and chord progressions, but once these are learned, composing legitimate music is a snap. Of course, there is a great leap from legitimate music to compelling music, from obeying rules to moving an audience to tears. Likewise, doing psychological research isn’t hard. Pick a research question, randomly assign participants, collect data, compute statistics, and then write it up, making sure to follow rules of reliability and validity. Indeed, thousands of research articles are published every year that feature legitimate scientific research—but how many of them are interesting? Interesting research not only contains words of scientific truth but also sets them to music; with its rise and fall, it speaks of the grandness of human experience to both our minds and our hearts. Like compelling music, interesting research may seem ephemeral and difficult to capture, but here we offer six guidelines.

These guidelines are meant to accompany the many articles on conducting proper research—articles that sketch out rules regarding sufficient statistical power, double-blind experimenters, and appropriate analysis techniques; that give suggestions regarding construct operationalization, questionnaire development, and debriefing; and that warn about external generalizability, the limits of self-report, and

the dangers of nonreplicability. These guides are immensely helpful, but most of us aspire to do more than simply proper research. We became psychologists to explore the true nature of the self, solve the mysteries of love, find the seeds of evil, or address similarly deep and important ques- tions about humanity. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of peer review, job markets, tenure races, and grant panels can dim this spark, turning the seductive and stirring into the safe and suitable. We write this article to reignite the fire.

The first section of this article covers how to choose an interesting research question, and the second section covers how to answer it. Each guideline is illustrated by examples from social psychological research, both classic and modern, from our labs and those of others. These guidelines have been learned through a career that includes discovering the slippery definition of action (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987), the distributive nature of memory (Wegner, Erber, & Raymond, 1991), the intractability of thought (Wegner, 1994b), the illusion of

497967PPSXXX10.1177/1745691613497967Gray and WegnerSix Guidelines for Interesting Research research-article2013

Corresponding Author: Kurt Gray, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 E-mail:

†APS notes with sadness the passing of our friend and colleague Dan Wegner on July 5, 2013, just as this manuscript went into production. His memory will live on, not just in the creativity and breadth of his contribution to psychological science, but also in the obvious joy he took from his research, as imparted to his students, and in his writing, as illustrated in this piece.

Six Guidelines for Interesting Research

Kurt Gray1 and Daniel M. Wegner2† 1University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and 2Harvard University

Abstract There are many guides on proper psychology, but far fewer on interesting psychology. This article presents six guidelines for interesting research. The first three—Phenomena First, Be Surprising, and Grandmothers, Not Scientists— suggest how to choose your research question; the last three—Be The Participant, Simple Statistics, and Powerful Beginnings—suggest how to answer your research question and offer perspectives on experimental design, statistical analysis, and effective communication. These guidelines serve as reminders that replicability is necessary but not sufficient for compelling psychological science. Interesting research considers subjective experience; it listens to the music of the human condition.

Keywords creativity, imagination, social cognition, research design, data analysis

by Jamie Hughes on September 15, 2013pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
550 Gray, Wegner

conscious will (Wegner, 2002), and the structure of mind perception (H. M. Gray, Gray, & Wegner, 2007). They have been imparted from the second author to his students—including the first author—and will soon be presented for your reading pleasure. We must acknowledge that many of these guidelines have been said before by others1 and that many researchers need no help being interesting. It is also important to assert that the interesting should never eclipse the true; truth is the highest goal of science, with no exceptions. On the road to truth, however, there are often forks that force you to choose between two or more potential research ques- tions, study designs, or analysis techniques. We hope to nudge you down the more interesting path.

Choosing Your Research Question

1. Phenomena first

“Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” First written by a young Dostoyevsky (1863/2009, p. 49), this admonition captures a powerful psychological experience—the inability to control your own mind. The inability to suppress thoughts grew eventually into mul- tiple studies (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987) and a review article (Wegner, 1994a), but it started first with a simple phenomenon: the maddening persistence of a white bear. Studies and theories matter only if they are grounded in a compelling human experience with clear qualia—the more powerful the better. The experi- enced reality of both conscious will (Wegner, 2002) and the self (Wegner, 2008) are so indelible that they persist even in the face of falsification.

Nagel (1974) famously wondered “What is it like to be a bat?” whereas we wonder “What is it like to be a person?” Shunning the classic definition of social psy- chology (how people are influenced by others; Allport, 1954), we echo the definition provided by Wegner and Gilbert (2000): “the understanding of subjective experi- ence” (p. 1). Studying human experience means that often “research ideas are better gathered from life than from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” (p. 670, Wegner, 2011). The longevity of the work of Milgram, Asch, and Zimbardo stems not from their theo- ries but from the psychological weight of obedience, conformity, and cruelty. Of course, there may be noth- ing as practical as a good theory (Lewin, 1951), but its importance is proportional to the importance and vivid- ness of the phenomenon it explains. Anything can be cocooned by studies and theories, but something beau- tiful emerges only if there lies, in its center, something alive.


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