“What is driving our information-seeking behavior, the questions we ask—why are you asking me the questions you are?”

 

 An interview with Tali Sharot, PhD

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience; University College London

By: Michelle Johnson (9/13/19)

 

Is there anything that surprised you going into the sciences?  

A lot of people warned me about how hard it would be, that research takes time. It does, but in fact, it turned out much better than what I expected. As an undergrad I have a distinct memory of applying to be an RA at a lab that studies rats. I was very enthusiastic and the professor said, “Well, listen, it’s hard work. You have to clean the rats, and it’s going to take months and years until we see our results—are you sure you want to do this?”

It’s not that there aren’t difficulties, but overall I feel there are discoveries almost every day—the little discoveries “Oh my, my student just revealed this new set of data, and there’s an interesting finding there!” Or you read a new article, and you think, “Oh, I never thought about it in this way.” So for me, it’s not having the discovery once every few years. It’s having discoveries all the time.

Are there any questions at the forefront of your mind that excite you?

One of the big projects that we’re working on [in the Affective Brain Lab] is trying to understand how people decide what they want to know. Do you want to know whether other people see you as social? Do you want to know whether you have a gene that predisposes you to cancer or what your genes say about your ancestors? Do you want to know whether your partner is cheating on you, or the year that you’re going to die?

What is driving our information-seeking behavior, the questions we ask—why are you asking me the questions you are? I want to define and quantify the motives that drive people to seek information and to understand individual differences in this domain.

Does studying these topics ever give insight into your own behaviors?

I think it does to some degree. Especially my work about being overly optimistic—I’m always [wondering], “Well, am I being overly optimistic here?” But I think it’s quite surprising how you’re able to dissociate; you’re studying this at a meta level, but at the end of the day you’re human. The type of biases I study a lot is how people are overly confident and overly optimistic. We don’t see ourselves as we really are, and I’m still like that. Studying these biases is not going to change it. We’re able to study biases and understand them, but at the same time, we’re still a subject in that experience.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in the field?

It seems obvious, but not all people make this choice: study what you are super curious and interested in, not just because you think it’s going to get you far. I think it’s also better to choose a question that is not studied as much. If you can start by looking at something that people haven’t looked at much, that will enable you to create your own space; sometimes it feels risky, but I think those risks are worth taking in the long run.

 

To learn more about Dr. Sharot and her work, click here.

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