KPU professor launches study on ‘social thinking’

How does the way we understand and relate to each other change as we develop throughout our lives? That’s the question that cognitive psychologist and KPU professor Dr. Daniel Bernstein is exploring with a new large-scale study beginning this year. 

The study, taking place at KPU’s Lifespan Cognition Lab over the next four years, seeks to develop tools and theory to better understand errors in “social thinking” and will use the help of a large variety of people, including KPU students, to do so.

Bernstein describes social thinking (or social cognition) as, “The ability to understand what other people think, know and feel”

A large part of what this study is about is the idea of hindsight bias. The idea is that after someone makes a prediction and then comes to know the actual outcome, that person will revise the original prediction is his/her mind based on the new info as if it was clear all along. 

The old adage hindsight is 20/20 seems to hold true. “Most of our judgment and decision making is really made under this great uncertainly,” said Bernstein, “but when you know the outcome, then our decision making becomes much clearer.”

After one has the new information it becomes difficult to take up the perspective that one held before the outcome became known. This goes back to social thinking because it’s easy to judge someone else’s decisions while influenced by information on the outcome of those decisions that the decision maker wouldn’t have had at the time.

The study relies on the participation of people from all walks of life, from toddlers to senior citizens. Participants, after filling out their basic info and signing the necessary consent forms, will be asked to complete various tasks (or games as Bernstein refers to them) to measure errors in social cognition and hindsight bias.

“We’re hoping that people will come in, compete all of these games, go away, come back a year later to do it again and do this four years in a row,” said Bernstein. This will allow researchers to trace how errors in cognition develop over a four-year period.

Right now the study is in a pilot phase but it will be a taking participants soon. Among them will be KPU students. Students currently enrolled in some psychology courses may even qualify for bonus marks toward those classes. Students of other areas of study are encourages to participate as well.

Bernstein has been working with the idea of hindsight bias since 2005. He says it was the mistakes that people make in their cognition and the way “people fail to see thing that others see quite clearly…and how that can change with age” that piqued his interest in this area of research.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University played a role in making this project possible. KPU provided several grants to help get the lab up and running and helped Bernstein apply for a Canada Research Chair, which provided additional funding and resources. “KPU has been very supportive thought” Bernstein said.

Also instrumental to the study has been the aid of KPU student assistants. These student researchers, both undergrads and recent KPU graduates, helped design the studies and helped in the submission process to the research ethics board. As the study goes on, assistants will work on participant recruitment, testing, follow up, data input/analyses and more. Throughout the process these students gain valuable experience and end up with publications. 

“They do everything, all the hard work,” Bernstein said with a laugh.

Joseph Keller

Joseph Keller is a student journalist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is also a regular contributor to the Runner, KPU's student publication.

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