Simine Vazire: Studying Self-Knowledge

Simine Vazire tackles one of the oldest and most fundamental questions in psychology—how well do we know ourselves?

Vazire and her team at the Personality and Self-Knowledge Lab study how people perceive themselves compared with how they behave.

Self-knowledge plays a pivotal role in psychology studies that rely on self-reports—surveys that ask study participants questions about themselves, their habits, or their personality.

Vazire and her team work to determine how much researchers can trust these responses and what their limitations might be.

In her ongoing study, participants carried iPod Touches with an app that recorded random 30-second snippets of audio throughout the day to capture their interactions. Human judges, usually undergraduate research assistants, listen for and then code a variety of behaviors and traits, like whether they swear or show concern for others, and personality traits like being outgoing or funny, and then match this up to the participants’ self-evaluation in the same categories.Student esearch assistants are listening to research participants' sound files and transcribing what they're saying

The project is a time-consuming, massive operation. Two graduate students and about 45 undergraduates at UC Davis work on coding and analyzing the data. (In photo, right, student research assistants transcribe sound files.) In addition, Vazire’s former colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis and other collaborators around the world are involved with data collection and analysis.

Questions they are exploring include how, when and why a person’s personality fluctuates throughout the day, how effective the iPod Touch recording devices are for research, and how reliable self-reports are.

“I’m pretty attached to that study,” said Vazire. “I’m also pretty proud of all the different people that were involved. It was and very much still is a team effort.”

She hopes the research findings will be worthwhile to psychology and science as a whole. “I think really getting the lay of the land of what people do and don’t know about themselves will have applications and implications that we don’t even know yet,” she said.

Leading Advocate for Better Science

Vazire also focuses on how science is done—and on improving research methods to ensure accuracy and integrity.

She co-founded the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS), which held its first annual conference in 2016. Its mission is to improve research methodology in psychology and other scientific fields and to de-incentivize bad research and exaggerated results.

She cultivated this broader approach during a 2013–14 fellowship at Stanford University’s interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. There, she had the opportunity to write, think, and interact with academics from all different fields. “It was great for broadening your thinking,” she said.

She joined UC Davis in 2014. After holding an endowed professorship at Washington University in St. Louis, she welcomed the opportunity to return to Northern California, as she was raised in Palo Alto. She was also drawn by the psychology department and the students. “There’s a kind of enthusiasm that’s very sincere among Davis students, where they seem really genuinely curious and interested in getting research experience or learning about research for very intrinsic reasons.”

Vazire loves interacting and working with graduate students in a collaborative environment in the lab. “It’s just so much fun,” she said. “It’s stimulating and rewarding and it blows my mind how much they teach me. There are ways in which they’re just so far ahead of me. It really keeps me on my toes and keeps research interesting.”

Graduate student Katie Finnigan, who has been working with Vazire for two years, expressed appreciation for how supportive she is of her students and their research interests and how dedicated she is to psychology and science in general.

“She has a really great perspective on work totally outside of her field and within her field, so she’s really idea-inspiring to work with,” Finnegan said. “She promotes a lot of great ideas.”

Vazire also is editor of Social Psychological and Personality Science, an academic journal published eight times a year. She said editing journal articles informs her teaching—critiquing and evaluating studies are skills she wants to pass on to students.

Psychology research methods are the focus of the courses she teaches—Research Methods in Psychology (PSC 41), Research in Personality and Social Psychology (PSC 180C) and a graduate seminar on research methods (PSC 206). “I love teaching students about how the sausages get made,” she said.

“[She] puts forth a lot of effort into promoting the well-being and success of her students and the people around her,” Finnigan said. “She’s a great scientist and person.”

— Noah Pflueger-Peters, spring 2017 writing intern