Morgan Lindstead | November 28, 2022
Nicolette Granata is currently a Ph.D. candidate working in the Social Cognition Lab at Vanderbilt University.
Your lab researches developmental psychology, can you tell me a little bit more about your research and what you’re currently working on?
The lab I’m a part of is called the Social Cognition Lab and I’ve been a part of it since I was a second-year undergraduate at Vanderbilt, so I’ve been around for about seven years now. I got involved with the Social Cognition Lab by taking Dr. Jonathan Lane’s Developmental Psychology course, through which I fell in love with learning about how kids grow and learn. Dr. Lane’s expertise is in how children learn about the minds of others – What do others believe? What are others’ intentions? How do they navigate their social worlds through those cognitive beliefs?
The lab is called the Social Cognition Lab because it investigates both social and cognitive aspects of children’s development. My own area of research focuses on children’s concepts of disabilities – How do children understand people who see, hear, move, or learn differently? How do they understand the role of those differences in behavior?
For example, when a person does something non-normative (like maybe a person fails to wave back because they didn’t hear or see someone wave “hello”) – are children more flexible in their judgments of these sorts of non-normative behaviors when they understand the role of a disability in them? That was kind of where my work began, and it has continued into how children understand accommodations. I also do some adult work on concepts about the role of disability in the afterlife, and the implications of the language we use to describe persons with disabilities.
Is there a specific reason why you chose this area of research?
I’ve always been really passionate about working with people with disabilities and involving myself in online conversations and communities surrounding the disability experience. For example, I’ve observed how typically-developing children interact with peers with disabilities in many settings, such as in special education and inclusive classrooms. These experiences motivated my interest in basic science, where I really felt like I could take my interests and experiences out in the world and use them to design strong studies to understand what children’s basic concepts of disability are. It is a really understudied area in comparison to children’s understanding of race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
What do you think the applications might be of your research?
I would love for my research to be a foundation for designing a curriculum to discuss disability in schools. Research shows that a lot of K-12 teachers are very wary of having discussions about disabilities in their classrooms. They don’t feel like they have the resources to do so, or they’re not quite sure what to say or what their students already know, but a lot of research from other areas (special education and disability studies) has shown that children are indeed curious about and noticing the differences in their peers with disabilities – noticing things like their accommodations. So we know that children are noticing these things and that disabled children are being victimized a lot more in middle school and high school than typically-developing children, but there’s really no current way for us to address this before it begins.
My perspective, and a lot of other developmental psychologists’ perspective, is that there are formative years between ages 3 to 7, and the more we know about how children’s concepts are developing during this time, the more opportunities there are to work with their concepts and intuitions to create a kinder world. I would love it if my basic research could be used to support applied researchers or practitioners in developing a strongly-backed curriculum for teaching children about disabilities and differences.
What is the most fascinating discovery you have made so far?
I think the most fascinating thing I’ve discovered is this relationship between reasoning and judgment. In our past work with children between 3 and 9 years of age – if they’re able to explain to us in their reasoning, using their own words, the role of disability in behavior, such as “Tommy wasn’t able to help because his legs work different” – their judgments of non-normative behavior are a lot more flexible. So, there seems to be this direct relationship between recognizing the role of disability in behavior, via this spontaneous open-ended reasoning, and judgments of non-normative behaviors. If children are more flexible in judging the behaviors of their peers with disabilities, it may lead to greater understanding, greater flexibility, and just better overall inclusion and acceptance of peers with differences.
I continue to be intrigued by why some children are apt to use this sort of reasoning, despite their age. In contrast, others use other types of reasoning, such as a person having a negative trait or motive – “this child just wanted to be mean” or “they are just a mean person” – some other reason besides the disability for acting the way they did. I’m now looking at how reasoning plays a role in children’s judgments about accommodations.
Do you have any plans for future research studies you’d like to conduct?
I’m currently designing my dissertation research, and it’s getting at this intuition, both in adults and children, that when we have a diminished sense of some sort, such as diminished eyesight, hearing, or touch, we might have extraordinary levels of other senses. There have been a lot of media characters that have kind of played into this intuition. For example, there was a series about a Blind detective who was one of the best detectives because he had this extraordinary hearing and touch…and then I was just watching Modern Family the other day, and Phil was up at the counter pretending for a moment to be Blind to cut the line, and he responded to the cashier’s questioning about how he knew the color of the bowl on the counter by saying, “Oh, I just have exceptional other abilities because I’m Blind.” So there is this dialogue out there, but this really hasn’t been empirically studied.
So where do these intuitions come from? I have the opportunity to not only collect more information about this with an adult sample, to see how they relate to their own experiences with diminished senses throughout their lives or people they know, but also to study it with three- to nine-year-olds.
For example, we would present children with scenarios where they get to choose which character they would ask for help in acquiring certain knowledge when one character is Blind and another character is not. Then, let’s say the lights go out, and now the characters can only use hearing or some other sense. Would the child choose the typically-developing character because they believe they are the “better” or more knowledgeable person overall?
Kids (and adults) experience what are called “halo effects” – when you tell a child that a person has a single negative quality, they reason that they have other negative qualities (same goes for positive qualities). So in the case of my study, they could either say “Oh, well I’m going to continue to pick the typically-developing character because they just have more positive qualities overall (they don’t have a “negative” disability diagnosis). Or, they could pick the blind character because they reason they have extraordinary hearing, touch, etc. – they reason that their other senses would be better than an average person in a situation where vision is not an option. Basically, we’re getting at intuitions about neuroplasticity; when we are told someone is born blind or born deaf, do people assume that, through neuroplasticity, other senses have been heightened?
By giving children lots of these sorts of scenarios, it allows us to test whether these intuitions exist and then use what we learn from our adult sample to craft a story. It is research that I’m very excited to begin working on because we could really find results in either direction (intuitions about neuroplasticity vs. halo effects), either of which would be interesting and contribute to existing research and theories.
What benefits have you derived from being in a research or Primary Investigator (PI) position?
I love working with the undergraduates in my lab. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, I really looked forward to lab meetings each week because it meant not only talking about research all together at one table, but also the fun little lab snacks, sharing pictures of our dogs, and all the bonding that comes with working so closely together – that has only grown stronger! I think in my graduate role, one of the most rewarding experiences has really been mentoring undergraduates as they work closely with me on my research. I’m really excited to be submitting a paper for publication soon with two of my undergraduate RAs (Research Assistants). Seeing them grow through the process of taking a study from pre-testing to piloting to its full version, to coding, analyzing, and finally to writing is the coolest! This role has been incredibly rewarding, and I’m so happy I have another year and a half to continue working with Dr. Lane and all our undergraduate RAs.
You’re currently working toward a Ph.D. Where do you hope this leads for you in the future?
I could really see myself happy in a lot of different roles I’m really passionate about teaching, and teaching can look a lot of different ways. I love teaching in a formal classroom setting, and I love mentorship – I consider the work I do with RAs and training RAs as in some ways formal, some ways informal teaching. I’ve also done some contract work outside of academia focused on kids’ socioemotional development, using research in my area to inform actual interventions and programs that are hopefully going to make this a kinder world and really empower kids to not only understand themselves better but also their peers. And as I’ve discussed already, I’m passionate about my research for many reasons. So kind of a question mark still, but I’m really encouraged by any direction that this path might lead me.
What steps have you taken to get where you are now? What advice would you give to an aspiring research student?
My biggest piece of advice would be to not be afraid to advocate for yourself. If you’re a first- or second-year and you’re not quite sure if you’re interested in research yet but you have an inkling that you might be, or a certain class lecture just really resonated with you, don’t be afraid to write that professor an email, and do it early. Research labs at Vanderbilt are really popular, and that’s a great thing, but that can also mean that there are waiting lists. Advocate for yourself ahead of time, knowing that you might not get a spot for a semester or two, but follow up, follow up, follow up, and eventually, you will get into that lab.
Once you are in that lab, I really encourage you to just ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the graduate students in your lab questions. All these sorts of questions are going to help you recognize whether or not research is something you really want to pursue in a more autonomous way. Don’t feel like you have to be boxed into the specific roles of a Research Assistant. Ask for opportunities to understand more about the research behind the scenes. Suggest ideas that you’ve come up with. From there, you might have the opportunity to conduct an Honors Thesis with your Primary Investigator (PI) or a graduate student in the lab.
To me, that is the number one way to know whether applying to graduate school is a good fit for you. I did an honors thesis in the social cognition lab as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt and it not only helped me realize that research was something I was passionate about, but that continuing my journey in this lab was something that I really wanted to pursue, and I couldn’t be more thankful it worked out that way.