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A conversation with Alexander Christensen

An interview

We recently chatted with Alexander Christensen about his article, "Remotely close associations: Openness to experience and semantic memory structure", which is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Personality. Alexander is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Read more about his article on openness to experience and semantic memory structure below!

Picture Alexander Christensen.jpg

Q: Hi Alexander, can you tell us a little about your study?

Openness to experience is a very distinct trait. It’s easy to pick up on after talking to someone for a while, because it can show of in the things they talk about, in their interests and hobbies. You can kind of get a glimpse of it in your daily interactions. In our study, we were interested in seeing what the semantic network of people high on openness to experience looks like. A semantic network is a web-like representation of associations between semantic concepts. We were expecting to find a relation between openness to experience and semantic memory given past research, which has shown that open people tend to come up with more verbal fluency responses. To examine this, we used the animal verbal fluency task, where people have to come up with as many animals as they could in one minute. The verbal fluency task is quite common in the cognitive psychology literature as well as for looking at cognitive processes with long-term memory. The animal category specifically for this task is a good one because, across cultures, it does not vary too much in terms of content; everyone knows animals, everyone has animals. It might change for cultures what animals are around locally or regionally, but for the most part it’s a universal category and there’s also a pre-defined task structure to it. So that makes it a very convenient tool for doing this kind of research.

One of the things that we found is that open people came up with more responses, and this finding replicated previous research. We wanted to add a bit more of a distinct edge by noting the unique responses – that is, a response that the other group did not generate – that open people come up with. And what we found is that open people came up with many more unique responses that the less open people did not come up with. And then finally, in line with our predictions, open people had a more flexible and interconnected structure in terms of their semantic network structure. We think that open people reaching more unique responses, and more responses in general, could be a result of having that interconnected network structure which allowed them to get to other responses and associations within the timeframe that we gave them.

We would like to generalize our findings much further than our verbal fluency task – although further research is probably needed for that. In a nutshell, I think we provide some evidence for open people being able to grab on to more distant and remote knowledge. In day-to-day life, they might know a little bit more and may remember some unique facts whereas other people may not. One of the driving forces here I think is curiosity; some other people may simply not be as curious to learn that information, so they would never get to those unique knowledge points. As a result of that curiosity, the breadth and depth of knowledge in open people might be a little bit deeper.

Q: What made you decide to study openness to experience and semantic memory structure?

At least with regard to the semantic network structure, I had no idea about these kinds of analyses before talking to Yoed Kenett, one of the co-authors on the paper, in my first semester of grad school. However, openness to experience is something that I have always found fascinating and interesting. Imagination is what really got my interest started in psychology and psychology research – and openness is largely defined by that character trait. I first started at the University of Minnesota for my bachelor’s and there I had the pleasure of working with Colin DeYoung, who has done a lot of work on openness to experience, and he has definitely influenced my thinking and helped progress my knowledge in this area.

The idea for this specific project on openness and semantic memory actually takes me back to my first month or two in grad school. When I first started, my advisor Paul Silvia – who is co-author on the paper – was just talking to me about what kind of work I wanted to do, and ultimately, I came to him because I was interested in creativity research, and in personality and individual differences – and specifically openness to experience, because of its relations to creativity. He pointed me to Yoed Kennett, who was doing semantic network research, and has done a number of works on people high on creativity and their semantic network structure. He has also looked at intelligence and other covariates of openness, so for me it kind of clicked right away. Learning the semantic network approach and having the background knowledge that I did, I wanted to do this project immediately, and it actually wound up being my thesis. It has been a long way coming and the paper has definitely evolved since the first proposal to now, so it’s been a long work, for sure!

Q: Where do you see yourself in the future?

Hopefully in a postdoc job! Research-wise, I think that my interests are very broad but openness, personality, and creativity – and now network analysis! – have kind of always been the underlying aspects to my work, and I would say that I’ll probably want to continue the lines of research that I’ve got going. I would also just want to continue with network analysis, whether that would be semantic network analysis or network analysis applied to personality constructs. I think more generally, that is kind of where my focus is, and so ultimately, one of my goals would be to help push network analysis towards becoming more of a methodological standard.

In the maybe more near future, I would like to look at different personality traits and their semantic network structure. I think there are plenty of avenues here, such as examining associations with emotions. If you skew it a little bit more towards the personality traits, you might see that people have different categorizations of the way that they think about, process, retrieve, and recall some information. Looking at interactions of specific personality traits is very promising as well, I think.

In the most near future, one goal that I have is to write a tutorial/manual on how to do semantic network analysis to make it more accessible to everyone. It’s still relatively new, but I think there’s a lot of potential for application that can extend across many psychological domains. But I think a first step would be to write a tutorial on how to do this and provide researchers with some of these tools so that they can do it on their own.

Q: What are the things about being a graduate student and about doing science in general that you wish you could have told yourself when you started your PhD?

As a preface, I would like to say I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Roger Beaty, a previous student of my advisor, who stuck around for a year because he’d gotten a grant which I was fortunate enough to help out with. It was a great way for me to pick his brain and I have to say I gathered so much wisdom – probably not enough, but a lot – from on his experiences. And then my advisor, Paul Silvia, is fantastic as a mentor.

But I would still say that there are two things that they couldn’t prepare me for: One is patience. Just looking at this paper, it took about three years from the idea generation point to the final product now finally being published and disseminated was about three years. It’s very hard to be patient for that amount of time to finally have your work show. The idea generation is so exciting, but then there comes a lot of hard work after that. So patience is really something I would tell myself; you will be with this idea for the long haul and you just have got to be okay with knowing that it’s going to take some time before it ever reaches other eyes.

And then the other thing: reviewers’ comments make your paper better. At first I used to get a bit upset about the criticism and stuff like that, but now I definitely look forward to reviewers’ comments because I see them as an opportunity to strengthen the paper. It’s something I’ve actually grown from really disliking to appreciating and sometimes even looking forward to. So if I could go back in time, I would tell myself: “It’s okay. Look at the reviews, but don’t take them personally, because they are really just about advancing science.”

Q: Thank you for the chat, Alexander!

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