A day in the life: Gordon Wright
As part of Science Week 2012, some of our scientists will be sharing more information about what inspires them in their work, and what they enjoy about their jobs.
- Name: Gordon Wright
- Job title: 2nd year PhD student
- Department: Psychological Sciences
- I’m interested in deception, or lying in simple terms. Deception is a really common social interaction that happens all the time in everyday life. But lying doesn’t happen in a vacuum – you have a liar, and you have the person that is listening to the lie – the lie detector. Most research up to now has looked either at whether people are good at telling lies, or whether they are good lie detector. I’m trying to look at both sides of the equation and see whether there’s any relationship between the two. My research is looking at whether people are good, or bad, at both of these things, and then to find out why or how.
- A lot of lying goes on in the real world, so to understand what that behaviour involves is really exciting. It does have massive applications, for example to the legal system. Currently lots of people use the polygraph as a lie detector, but scientists are quick to admit that it is not a perfect lie detection tool, so this research might eventually be used to create a replacement for that. But more exciting is that my research can give us an idea of ‘who’ might be the biggest threat from the outset.
How I got here
- I did my first degree in modern languages and then went and worked in the advertising industry for a few years. Advertising is all about trying to understand and predict how people behave, which is really tough, but that stimulated my interest in psychology; the science of human behaviour.
- I decided that I wanted a career change, went back to university to study an undergraduate degree in psychology and then came to Birkbeck to do a Master's in Research Methods in Psychology. Then I applied to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a PhD studentship, and here I am in my second year.
On any given day…
- Data is the life-blood of what we do, so I’m always trying to generate new data. I’ve tested hundreds of people to produce data from which I can work out what is happening when people lie and detect lies. I’m working on 3 or 4 experiments right now!
- First, I carry out behavioural experiments where we take ordinary people and try to create a real life situation, in which we ask them to lie, or tell the truth, and at the same time, judge whether the other people in the group are lying or telling the truth. This is different to most research in my area, which involves individuals, alone in a little room, watching videos or talking to a camera – it has the buzz of real-life interaction to it.
- At the moment, we are examining face-to-face lies about opinions people hold. We have developed a ‘competition’ experiment, where people talk about their opinions and win points for telling the truth successfully and lying successfully about the opinions they hold. Because it’s designed so that I know when they’re telling the truth and when they’re lying I can look at the words they use, how long it takes them but most importantly, whether they are successful! It sounds quite chaotic but it´s really great fun because people enjoy competitions. We offer high-value prizes so people are motivated and they really take it seriously. This experiment has already shown us that the people who are good at telling lies, are also better at judging when someone else is lying in this interactive setting. It’s scary to think that the same people are good at telling lies to you and detecting when you try to tell lies to them!
- The next phase of my research is using the fMRI scanner we have here at Birkbeck, so that I can see what is happening in participants’ brains while they do similar tasks, essentially which areas of the brain are most active. This should help us understand why some people are better than others at lying and detecting lies.
- Doing a PhD is all about trying to create a coherent story around your research. So I also spend a lot of time planning projects to build on some of the exciting results we have generated. I might be planning two or three experiments ahead because I know where I want to get to, I just need to find out the best way to get there.
What I like best about my job
- By far the best thing about doing a PhD is that you´ve decided, from all the things in the world that human beings do, what is the one little thing that you are going to study. That´s quite frightening too. The lab environment is a great experience as well. It’s easy to think of science as a solo activity but it´s actually a team sport. As a PhD student I have a really supportive supervisor and he shares his experience of what it´s like to go through this process, passes on his expertise and is a source of support, advice and encouragement. At the same time you have other people doing PhDs in the lab, so it´s like an extended research family. We're lucky in the lab that we're in, we meet once a week, we share ideas, we talk about each others’ research and try to get as many opinions and interpretations of how to analyse data, what it means, what can we extrapolate from that. It brings a lot of people to the table and you get some really fresh ideas. Above all, it’s stimulating and great fun.
What I’m planning next
- Hopefully to get a PhD at the end of it! I think that deception is a fascinating part of human behaviour and lying employs a number of really complicated psychological processes under extreme pressure, against the clock and in a social context, so I’d really like to continue doing research in this exciting area.
- I also do a lot of teaching and I love that part of my job. My inspiration in the field has often been really passionate teachers and experts who are able to explain things clearly and enthusiastically. So I’d love to be able to combine teaching and research and sharing my passions with other people.
Video: Gordon describes his research in this short video