Our research is springing up at the 2017 Spring Undergraduate Research Day

Congratulations to lab member Meghan Brzinski who won first place in the social sciences at the 2017 Undergraduate Research Day presentations!


In fact, lab research was in full bloom at this year’s campus Undergraduate Research Day, with additional posters from lab members Sephora Wawa, Ericka Schaeffer, and Rory Calabria and Ashley Damrow (pictured).

So, congratulations to every one of these undergraduate students on their hard work, and
here’s to your future successes. Cheers!

Why are cognitive biases so ubiquitous? In a word, Bandwidth.

This beautiful graphic illustrates the bewildering array of psychological biases that have been documented in the literature.  I must admit that I was surprised to see how numerous they are.

But most fascinating to me is the broader categorization of biases according to the “problem” that they solve.  It’s intriguing to think that despite the apparent heterogeneity in the errors we commit, there may be some common explanations that may help us to understand their causes and, perhaps, ways to diminish their adverse effects.  Two of these “problems” are familiar to me, since I teach about them in my cognitive psychology course.   What are called, “too much information” and “not enough meaning” in the graphic, I call “too much input to include in perception” and “not enough input to explain perception” in my lectures.


But both of these are related to a single, simple idea that has been observed repeatedly by neuroscientists over decades (including Vernon Mountcastle, Marcus Raichle, Charles Anderson & David Van Essen to name just a few).   Raichle has pointed out that the brain compresses the unlimited amount of information present in the perceivable world into a much, much smaller amount of information – e.g., roughly just one-millionth of the available input is conveyed to the primary visual cortex, and even less is available to attention and conscious awareness!   Such severe data compression is probably related to the remarkable energetic efficiency of the brain, an organ that consumes roughly 15 watts of power a day – less than it takes to power a light bulb.  And yet, those 15 watts represent 20% of the body’s total energy budget, despite the brain comprising only 2% of the body’s total weight.   Thus, the brain is constantly active, probably working to overcome its inherent bandwidth limitations in clever, but flawed ways.

Embodied cognition and Artificial Intelligence

An article in the New York Times that examined how close we are to achieving artificial intelligence elicited three letters to the editor, one of them from my Ph.D. dissertation advisor Art Glenberg (along with his colleague Dennis Proffit).  He argues from the perspective of research in “embodied cognition” that AI is impossible without an accompanying body, and cites my dissertation research as one demonstration of that requirement.


How will the evidence from embodied cognition influence efforts to achieve AI?  Will it hinder them, or can embodied cognition research help to advance those efforts?   Such questions are pondered by students in the UWW Transhumanist Association.

The letters to the editor can be found here.


New lab publication on how the language of presidential stump speeches influences emotion

1024px-Donald_Trump_and_Hillary_Clinton_during_United_States_presidential_election_2016Newly published research from the lab aims to understand how politicians use language to engage the emotions of mass audiences. The study was based on work we’ve done to illuminate the relationship between human emotions and language processing, a relationship that has only recently gained attention in the field of cognitive science. The full article can be downloaded at the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology website.

We know that presidential candidates carefully tailor their language to influence the electorate during the campaign season. But little is known about how, at the cognitive level, presidential speeches stir the emotions of voters. The new study, conducted in collaboration with political science professor Dr. Christopher Chapp of St. Olaf College, looked at stump speeches from then-candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential election to identify the type of sentences that appeared in these evocative speeches more often when compared to more ceremonious State of the Union addresses. Those sentences were then evaluated for what, exactly, enabled them to pack an emotional punch.

We found that stump speeches, meant to engage the passions of listeners, contain many more instances of past tense verbs with the “-ing” ending, indicating an ongoing action, in contrast to State of the Union addresses that are intended to justify a policy agenda. This isn’t because stump speeches contain more past tense verbs in general – they don’t. Instead, the study authors suggest that the “-ing” ending is more effective at tapping audience emotions, which is why politicians are using it (consciously or not) to rally their bases.

For example, the past-tense phrase “the folks here held signs” implies action happened in the past, but is now finished. But when Obama says, “the folks here were holding signs,” now the implied action is unfinished, ongoing, and open-ended. And here is where emotions are helpful – to help the listener to resolve the unfinished action (helping you to imagine the folks passionately chanting and shouting, perhaps).

Campaign speeches are likely to differ from other presidential speeches in many ways, so a crucial question is whether the “–ing” grammatical trick really works to elicit audience emotions. In a follow-up study, the authors asked participants to rate the emotional intensity of 100 phrases taken from the presidential speeches – 50 that had the “–ing” ending and 50 had matching phrases written in the plain past-tense. Participants rated the versions with the “-ing” ending (for example, “The middleclass was getting hammered”) as feeling significantly more emotional than the versions written in the plain past tense (“The middle class got hammered”).

The study was conducted with the help of UW-Whitewater undergraduate students, and is part of our research program aimed at understanding how language and emotion interact. In addition to having implications for the study of language processing and emotion, the findings may contribute a novel approach to understanding political communication.

Lab presence at 2014 Midwestern Psychological Association

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Lab members attended the 2014 Midwestern Psychological Association conference in Chicago to support lab member, Thomas Haasl, who presented his poster titled “Exploring the Effects of Facial Muscle Fatigue on Emotional Language Comprehension” at the conference.


Pictured (from left to right): Dr. David Havas (lab director), Thomas Haasl, Megan Wehse, Laura Lammers

Making a splash at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research

According to early reports, laboratory researchers are attracting attention at NCUR, held this year at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.  This year’s NCUR is the largest ever, with over 4,000 students and mentors attending.

Congratulations to all lab members who attended this conference!!


Lab member Megan Wehse with her poster “Semantic satiation and the comprehension of emotional language.”


Lab member Thomas Haasl with his poster “Exploring the impact of facial fatigue on emotional language comprehension.”


Lab member and McNair scholar Nicholas Walker with his poster, “Reducing the fundamental attribution error by manipulating the mirror neuron system.”


McNair scholar Mindy Thao with her poster, “Exporing differences in embodiment of emotional language comprehension between European Americans and Hmong Americans.”