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In the summer of 2011 I was lucky enough to conduct research in social psychology with faculty mentor Dr. Philip Tetlock, through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring program. The project was entitled “Empathizing with the Enemy” and explored the perceptions and decisions behind empathizing with an enemy group. Stemming from Dr. Tetlock’s previous work on taboo cognitions and sacred values, this project sought to determine the conditions under which it may be taboo by group members for a leader to express empathy toward an enemy, and, conversely, those under which it may be considered useful. Essentially, we investigated the pros and cons of the popular proverb “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!” Attitudes like the one presented in political cartoon above demonstrate why a leader may receive negative attributions for empathizing with an enemy. Delving into this research question opened up several interesting areas for investigation. Topics of exploration included the tricky psychological distinction between empathy and sympathy, the moral decision-making process, emotional intelligence and leadership, and the role of ideology, group goals and values in judging empathetic acts.
While working on the project, I was delighted to have been given direct experience with various parts of the research process. My theoretical investigations into the psychological underpinnings of the research question allowed me to design several research methods to test our hypotheses. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the experience, interestingly enough, were the several imperfect survey attempts that did not provide data in accordance with our predictions, but, rather, suggested where we had been flawed in our reasoning. These apparent setbacks not only gave me the chance to explore new perspectives to our research topic, but also acquainted me with the tricky nature of psychology research that I will likely run into again as I continue to pursue a career in research psychology. Further, the need to reformulate and refine the theories behind our experimental manipulations illuminated the most worthwhile aspects for continued research.
Participating in research through the PURM program made for an especially productive and worthwhile summer! An interesting and exciting foray into research psychology, this experience enabled me to explore and refine my specific interests within research psychology. I am particularly excited that I will be continuing my research with Dr. Tetlock as an independent study this upcoming year, as a member of Dr. Tetlock’s Good Judgment Lab.