ACSHF Forum: Grad Student Presentations

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host ACSHF PhD Students Anne Linja and Alex Watral at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum. Their presentations will be from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. Monday (November 28) in Meese 109 and via Zoom.

Linja will present her research titled “Through the Eyes of Tesla FSD Drivers: Tesla Drivers’ Social Media Posts Never Run Out of Gas”

Abstract: With the recent deployment of the latest generation of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) mode, consumers are using semi-autonomous vehicles in both highway and residential driving for the
first time. As a result, drivers are facing complex and unanticipated situations with an unproven technology, which is a central challenge for cooperative cognition. One way to support cooperative
cognition in such situations is to inform and educate the user about potential limitations. Because these limitations are not always easily discovered, users have turned to the internet and social media
to document their experiences, seek answers to questions they have, provide advice on features to others, and assist other drivers with less FSD experience. In this presentation, I will explore a novel approach to supporting cooperative cognition: Using social media posts can help characterize the limitations of the automation in order to get information about the limitations of the system and explanations and workarounds for how to deal with these limitations. Ultimately, our goal is to determine the kinds of problems being reported via social media that might be useful in helping users anticipate and develop a better mental model of an AI system that they rely on. To do so, we examine a corpus of social media posts about FSD problems to identify (1) the typical problems reported, (2) the kinds of explanations or answers provided by users, and (3) the feasibility of using such user-generated information to provide training and assistance for new drivers. The results reveal a number of limitations of the FSD system (e.g., lane-keeping and phantom braking) that may be anticipated by drivers, enabling them to predict and avoid the problems, thus allowing better mental models of the system and supporting cooperative cognition of the human-AI system in more situations.

Watral will present her research titled “Sensitivity of a Robotic Hit & Avoid Task to Executive Control and Global Cognitive Changes in Healthy Aging and Cognitive Impairment”

Abstract: We recently found that a rapid motor decision-making task is sensitive to age differences in executive control and can isolate the cognitive from the sensorimotor contributions to task performance (Watral & Trewartha, 2021). However, we are also interested in this task’s ability to distinguish between healthy aging and cognitive impairment as seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In this presentation, I will revisit the results from Watral & Trewartha (2021) and show preliminary findings comparing task performance between healthy older adults and those who exhibit cognitive impairment. Additionally, task parameters thought to be associated with executive control will be compared to a traditional measure of executive functioning (Trail Making Test) and a global measure of overall cognitive functioning (Montreal Cognitive Assessment).

Carolyn Duncan: Free Falling

Original story published on College of Engineering Blog, 11/10/2022

Cat suspended in air
Just what is Reactive Balance Ability? And why does it matter? Join us during Husky Bites, to find out!
Carolyn Duncan, Michigan Tech Assistant Professor

Carolyn Duncan shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive Zoom webinar this Monday, 11/14 at 6 pm ET. Learn something new in just 30 minutes or so, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

What are you doing for supper this Monday night 11/14 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Carolyn Duncan, assistant professor, Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology and Affiliated Assistant Professor, Cognitive and Learning Sciences at Michigan Tech.

Joining in will be Sarah Aslani, Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF) PhD student and a member of  Prof. Duncan’s MTU Balance and Functional Mobility Lab at Michigan Tech, who will share just how balance is studied in the lab.

Falls are a major cause of serious injury and death in our society. So how can we prevent them? 

Sarah Aslani, ACSHF PhD student, Michigan Tech

“We need greater understanding of exactly what affects our ability to regain our balance when we lose it,” Duncan explains. “Not all risk factors affect balance in the same way. There are many unanswered questions, and that’s where our research comes in,” she says.

How do we anticipate falling? And what happens if we are distracted?

“There’s a lot we still don’t understand in respect to balance,” she says. Some major culprits, though: clutter and poor lighting. 

During Husky Bites, Prof. Duncan will explore what is currently known on how we regain our balance, share some things we can do to improve our balance and prevent falls, and discuss her ongoing research on balance control and fall prevention.

We can learn a lot from penguins, says Prof. Carolyn Duncan.

Duncan earned her BSc in Kinesiology and MSc in Occupational Biomechanics, both at the University of New Brunswick, and her PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on biomechanics at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She was a postdoctoral fellow in Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, then taught engineering ergonomics courses at Virginia Tech before joining the faculty at Michigan Tech in 2018.

After obtaining her doctorate in mechanical engineering, Prof. Duncan spent time working as an ergonomist and fall prevention specialist before she became a researcher. Her work has spanned from fall prevention in offshore industries to developing fall prevention safety programs for workplaces. These experiences give her valuable real-world insights in the fall-related challenges people face in everyday life.

Balance control research in Prof. Duncan’s MTU Balance and Functional Mobility Lab at Michigan Tech

At Michigan Tech, Duncan investigates factors that influence successful balance recovery—from lighting, load-carrying, and aging, to cognitive, neurological, and physical disorders and musculoskeletal injury. She also works with the design of built environments for older adults and special populations. 

“My research primarily focuses on the factors that influence successful balance recovery to prevent falls and improve mobility,” she explains.

Her work studying balance recovery in moving environments—such as the wave motion encountered in maritime settings—involves asking questions, such as “would dancers have better balance on a boat?” 

(Prof. Duncan found that while dancers demonstrated significantly fewer stumbling events when on a simulated boat than novices during the first trial, dancers did not perform as well as individuals with offshore experience.)

Clutter + Poor Lighting = Falls, says Prof. Carolyn Duncan. (Okay, we’ve been warned.)

Arriving recently from the warmer climate of Tehran to earn her PhD in Cognitive Learning Sciences in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Aslani has not yet experienced a Houghton winter, or ever slipped on the ice and snow. Thankfully, she is co-advised by Prof. Duncan and Kevin Trewartha, an assistant professor with joint appointment in CLA and KIP. They’re already preparing Aslani for what to expect when the snowflakes start to fly and temperatures dip.

Are wide stairs safer or more dangerous? And what does the “run length” have to do with it? We’ll find out during Husky Bites!

“Sarah has a background in biomedical engineering, and she just started this semester,” says Duncan. “She will be doing her PhD research on factors that influence our ability to recover our balance. I look forward to furthering this area of research with her in the upcoming years. And we look forward to teaching her how to snowboard and ski as part of our Lab bonding time.”

“I was looking for a research project that would cover both of my interests—biology and neuroscience—when I saw Dr. Duncan’s profile on the Michigan Tech website,” adds Aslani. “So I sent her an email. Then, in our first meeting, it really felt right. I knew this would be a place where I’d fit in.”

In the lab, Duncan and her team perform balance control research. Their overall goal: to help improve the lives of individuals in our community.

“Type 2 Diabetes is a big challenge facing many older adults, with devastating effects on balance. However, surprisingly, very little is known about how exercises like Tai Chi may decrease fall risk. My team is excited to start examining how effective lost-cost group exercise programs like Tai Chi, for improving balance and decreasing risk of falls. We’ll be working in collaboration with Dr. Kevin Trewartha and physical therapists Dr. Cameron Williams and Dr. Lydia Lytle,” Duncan says.

“Dim lighting is often associated with falls in the home,” she adds. “We’re currently looking into how lighting specifically affects balance recovery. We hope this knowledge will be used to develop guidelines on optimal lighting in homes and built environments in our community  to decrease risk of falls.’

During Husky Bites, Prof. Duncan promises to offer some takeaways, too. She’ll provide exact details on the best kinds of shoes, railings and stairs to prevent falls. 

“Mountain biking and alpine skiing are my passions, so the Upper Peninsula is a great place to live all year around,” says Dr. Duncan.

Dr. Duncan, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I first got into Engineering when I decided that pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering would best suit my long-term goals of being a researcher in biomechanics. My previous undergraduate and Masters degrees in Kinesiology and Science with focuses in biomechanics and ergonomics had sparked a desire to learn more advanced biomechanical modeling techniques. A PhD in Mechanical Engineering allowed me to learn these advanced biomechanical modeling techniques while also gaining the foundational knowledge in mechanical and human factors engineering to pursue this career.

Hometown, family?
I’m originally from Rothesay, New Brunswick, Canada–about 45 minutes east of Maine. Interestingly, I come from a healthcare and teaching family. My parents were both public school teachers, and my grandparents were all healthcare professionals or engineers. I have one younger brother who is currently an electrician in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

There’s something so adorable about Brady!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m a member of the Mont Ripley Ski Patrol and Copper Harbor Bike Patrol. I’ve recently taken up Nordic skiing and disc golf. When I’m not outside I love to cook and am an avid indoor gardener. I have a two-year old ginger tabby cat named “Brady the Tomcat,” in honor of Tom Brady (I’m a lifelong New England Patriots fan). I found Brady at Copper Country Humane Society right here in Houghton. 

Sarah, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

“I always enjoy chatting with my friends,” says Aslani. “Sometimes when I want to clear my head and not think of anything, I hang out with a friend.”

Growing up, I was always trying to figure out my real passion–some area in which I am really talented, so that I can direct all my attention and power toward it.

I tried out many things, including painting and playing piano. But, they were never enough for me. After getting admitted to the Iranian Biology Olympiad (IrBO) at age fourteen, and then, a year later, to the Iranian’s national Mathematics Olympiad, I started to realize that I may be good at both those fields (biology and math). That is why a couple of years later, I chose to pursue a biomedical engineering degree.

Hometown, family?
Until recently, I lived in Tehran, Iran. It is the capital of Iran. Very crowded, but it is very beautiful, with lots of beautiful countryside spots to go on picnics, like Chitgar Lake. Plus, there are two, three great places to go hiking.

We are a small family. I have a younger brother who also chose the engineering field. My dad is an agricultural engineer. My mum is a biotechnology researcher. 

Any hobbies? Pets? What do you like to do in your spare time?
The first thing is that I love hiking; when I was in Iran I used to go hiking every two weeks.

Hiking is one of Aslani’s passions. She’s excited to get out and start exploring the UP!

Another thing I am crazy about is learning new languages. I learn new languages by watching movies and listening to music. Recently I started learning Spanish. I love Spanish music. I memorized the lyrics and tried them out with karaoke!

And finally, I always enjoy chatting with my friends. Sometimes when I want to clear my head and not think of anything, I hang out with a friend. 


Michigan Tech’s Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences offers bachelor of science degrees in Psychology and Human Factors, along with a Minor in Psychology. We also offer an Accelerated Masters degree in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF), which typically requires only one additional year of course work. Our graduate program includes masters and doctoral degrees in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF).

Questions? Contact us at cls@mtu.edu. And follow us @clsmtu on Instagram and Facebook for the latest happenings.

ACSHF Forum: Briana Bettin

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host CS and CLS Assistant Professor Dr. Briana Bettin at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum Monday (November 14) from 2:00pm to 3:00pm in Meese 109 and via Zoom.

Briana Bettin is an assistant professor of both computer science and cognitive and learning sciences. She received her master’s in human-computer interaction from Iowa State University and her bachelor’s and Ph.D. in computer science from Michigan Tech. Her research blends user experience methodologies with education research to better understand programming students and the impacts of the classroom environment.

Abstract: Our increasingly digital society requires citizens to effectively communicate about and with computing technologies to thrive. All too often, these technologies impacting our lives are suggested to be apolitical, while details of their design – including their limitations – are obfuscated, ignored, or considered inevitable. Navigating the world of computing and digital landscapes already poses a variety of challenges which can make new obstacles, “glitches”, and outcomes feel insurmountable. Coupled with stereotypical notions suggesting increased difficulty and limited societal impacts of computing and programming, learners of all ages and skills can easily become frustrated and discouraged from learning skills and topics necessary for today’s society. 

This talk explores the need for and explorations toward increasing awareness, understanding, and agency toward computing as a crucial component of modern society. From learning to code to understanding data collection, opportunities abound to transform learner relationships with computing material. Empowering learners to communicate confidently about computing gives them the power through language to begin critically analyzing and reimagining these technologies. With technology demystified and new pathways opened, learners may feel more capable to advocate for and/or create change. This approach to agency formation draws from theories of “punk DIY subculture”, positing that “punk programmers” might be defined as individuals who recognize faulty societal norms in technology design, and “DIY” approaches to subvert them. By toppling barriers to entry, giving learners a voice, and inspiring agency, more “punk programming pedagogy” may play a key part in reimagining the multifaceted possibilities of our sociotechnical futures.

Robin Chosa appointed to Michigan Board of Counseling

Michigan Tech alumnus Robin Chosa has been appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Board of Counseling.

Chosa earned the degree Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Michigan Technological University in 2015 and is the operations manager for the Ford Center in Alberta. He is also chairman of the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College Board of Regents and the owner of Rez Robbins LLC. The Baraga-based business operates as a food vendor providing catering for local festivals and pow wows on the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

Susie Amato-Henderson, associate professor and former CLS chair gave input on the nomination process. “They were hoping to find a candidate from the UP with strong community ties, ideally from a traditionally underrepresented community. Robin instantly came to mind as his tie to the whole community, and especially to the Ojibwa community, are strong. I knew that he had spoken out previously, following some tragic losses in the community, regarding the need for mental health treatment services. He will bring a much needed underrepresented perspective to the board.

Robin will serve as a strong advocate for the needs of rural communities, and also for the needs of indigenous communities and people. I know he will be a fantastic addition to the board!

Susie Amato-Henderson, CLS associate professor

If approved by the state senate, Chosa will represent the general public on the board, which oversees licensing of counselors and counseling practices.

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences congratulates Robin on being appointed to this key post in the governor’s office.


Michigan Tech’s Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences offers bachelor of science degrees in Psychology and Human Factors, along with a Minor in Psychology. We also offer an Accelerated Masters degree in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF), which typically requires only one additional year of course work. Our graduate program includes masters and doctoral degrees in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF).

Questions? Contact us at cls@mtu.edu. And follow us @clsmtu on Instagram and Facebook for the latest happenings.

ACSHF Forum: Robert Gutzwiller

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host Dr. Robert Gutzwiller (Arizona State University) at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors Forum on Monday (Oct. 31) from 2-3 p.m. via Zoom only.

Title:
Do Cyber Attackers Suffer From Decision-Making Biases?

ABSTRACT:
We report on whether cyber attacker behaviors contain decision making biases. Data from a prior experiment were analyzed in an exploratory fashion, making use of think-aloud responses from a small group of red teamers. The analysis provided new observational evidence of traditional decision-making biases in red team behaviors (confirmation bias, anchoring, and take-the-best heuristic use). These biases may disrupt red team decisions and goals, and simultaneously increase their risk of detection. Interestingly, at least part of the bias induction may be related to the use of cyber deception. Future directions include the development of behavioral measurement techniques for these and additional cognitive biases in cyber operators, examining the role of attacker traits, and identifying the conditions where biases can be induced successfully in experimental conditions

Student Spotlight: Dalton Williams

Today we are talking with Dalton Williams, a third-year Exercise Science major and Psychology minor. We’ve gotten to know Dalton, here in the CLS department, as he has been our work-study student since starting Michigan Tech in fall 2020. He seems to have an endless amount of energy and drive—see list below 🙂—so we wanted to learn a bit more about him outside his duties in the Meese Center.

For some background, Dalton’s extensive list of campus involvement includes: Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Squad Leader, Orientation Team Leader, Summer Youth Programs Counselor, Athletic Training Student Aide, and member of Association of Psychology Students (APS), Pre-Health Association, Beta Sigma Theta, Quiz Bowl, Smash Club, and Fighting Game Club.

Let’s start our Q&A at the beginning . . .

Q: Growing up in Ithaca, Michigan how did you decide on Michigan Tech for your undergraduate studies?

A: A couple of my close friends in high school were committed to Michigan Tech relatively early, so on a whim I decided to go with them for a campus visit. I immediately fell in love with the area and the campus facilities. I also discovered that the university had a good program for exercise science and physical therapy, as well as a free EMS training course—a program I had been interested in for a while. So I applied, and here I am!

Q: What do you feel are the advantages of adding a psych minor to your exercise science major?

A: Physical Therapy doctorate programs have several psychology course prerequisites such as intro to psych, developmental psych, and abnormal psych. After that, it doesn’t take many more psychology courses to earn the minor. Beyond that however, I believe that anyone in a health-related field should have a strong understanding of the mind, as the brain drives everything the body does. Specifically for my major, getting someone motivated enough to exercise, working with a wide variety of people of all ages and personalities, and having a comprehensive understanding of how the mind influences motor function are all important lessons I have learned while pursuing my psych minor.

Q: You’ve been involved in a wide variety of organizations around campus over the past three years, including becoming a fully certified EMS volunteer. What are some of the top benefits you have gained from being a member of these organizations?

A: The organizations that I am lucky to be a part of have taught me skills and lessons that not only make me a more well-rounded person, but a better pre-health professional. Michigan Tech’s Emergency Medical Services ( EMS) is definitely the organization I am most passionate about, and for good reason. Tech EMS training was a life changing experience, during which I met lifelong friends and beneficial study habits. Being a part of EMS and Michigan Tech’s Athletic Training Student Aide (ATSA) program taught me very practical new skill sets as well as discipline and interpersonal skills.

Q: What do you aspire to do after completing your undergraduate degree?

A: I plan on going to physical therapy school and earning a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. From there, I would love to work as a sports medicine physical therapist to rehabilitate athletes.

Q: Anything else you would like to share with us?

A: My advice to all upcoming college students is to take it one day at a time. The balance between work, school, one’s personal and social life, and everything in between can feel overwhelming at times. I find that if I focus on what I need to get done today to make tomorrow less overwhelming, I can always keep on keeping on!


CLS would like to recognize Dalton and all EMS and emergency personnel on this National First Responders Day, October 28, 2022. From day-to-day incidents to large-scale emergencies, career and volunteer first responders selflessly serve to keep us all safe. Thank you!!


Read more on the benefits of adding a psychology minor to your major in our blog story: Alumni Spotlight: Emilee (Philson) Stanczyk

Michigan Tech’s Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences offers bachelor of science degrees in Psychology and Human Factors, along with a Minor in Psychology. We also offer an Accelerated Masters degree in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF), which typically requires only one additional year of course work.

Questions? Contact us at cls@mtu.edu. And follow us @clsmtu on Instagram and Facebook for the latest happenings.

CLS at Human Factors & Ergonomics Society International Annual Meeting

Michigan Tech was well represented at the HFES International Annual Meeting held in Atlanta, GA last week. CLS faculty in attendance were Kelly Steelman, Susie Amato-Henderson, and Briana Bettin (CLS/CS), along with ACSHF graduate students Tauseef Mamun, Lamia Alam, Lauren Monroe, and Nishat Alam.

Mamun co-chaired the session “Human AI Robot Teaming (HART)” and presented his research “Assessing Satisfaction in and Understanding of a Collaborative Explainable AI (CXAI) System through User Studies” conducted with Lamia Alam and Shane Mueller (CLS) and Robert Hoffman (IHMC).

Amato-Henderson co-chaired the session “COVID-19 Pandemic and Remote/Hybrid Learning – Education” and presented her research with Jon Sticklen (EF) “The Relationship between Teaming and Sense of Connection in a First-Year Engineering Program”.

Monroe presented her research “The Effects of Varying Music Tempo on Vigilance Performance and Affective State” conducted with Samantha Smith (CLS)

Bettin (CLS/CS) presented her research “Identifying and Addressing Risks in the Early Design of a Sociotechnical System through Premortem” conducted with Kelly Steelman (CLS), Charles Wallace (CS), Dana Pontious (CLS), and Elizabeth Veinott (CLS).

ACSHF Forum: Grad Student Presentations

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host ACSHF students Lisa Casper and Betsy Lehman at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum Monday (October 17) from 2:00pm to 3:00pm in Meese 109 and via Zoom.

Lisa Casper will present her research titled “Does Design Thinking Support Innovation: Empirical Evaluation

Abstract: Design thinking (DT) is a tool to support team innovation however, few empirical studies have examined it. In this study, we experimentally compared the effect of two approaches for DT ideate brainstorming on the number of ideas generated and the perceived innovativeness of those ideas.  As part of a semester-long DT project, 145 participants comprising 48 teams were challenged to develop an innovative solution for one of 17 United Nations sustainability goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals).  Half of the teams engaged in a standard DT brainstorming ideation process, while the other half participated in an experimental brainstorming condition. Participants generated ideas and provided subjective ratings of the process and their team’s solution. Ideas were content-coded on several dimensions by two independent raters.  We found that teams in the DT experimental brainstorming techniques condition generated almost 58% more ideas than those in the DT baseline condition in the same amount of time, but their ideas were not rated as more innovative. What these data suggest for innovation and conducting research on innovation will be discussed.

Betsy Lehman will present her research titled Counterfactual Thinking as a Strategy for Questioning a Frame: Experimental Results

Abstract: Understanding how people make sense of situations and question the theories they hold may be critical in many circumstances, from communicating about climate change to improving DEI at work. Questioning a perspective is assumed to be a precursor to changing it (Klein et al., 2007), yet the research on the questioning process is limited. In a previous study, we found that factors involved in counterfactual thinking (Roese & Olson, 1995), mutability of the situation and ease of generating counterfactuals, appeared highly relevant in the sensemaking process. In the present experiment, we tested this effect by manipulating ease of generation and a mutability focus strategy. This research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of perspective shifting to support applications such as programs to reduce implicit bias.

KCP Future Faculty Fellowship Award – Tim Raymond

The Michigan Tech Graduate School has announced that ACSHF MS student Tim Raymond is the recipient of a King-Chávez-Parks (KCP) Future Faculty Fellowship for academic year 2022-2023. Tim explains how he first became interested in teaching through his involvement in martial arts classes in his early teens. His passion grew from there and he continues to pursue and define his knowledge of teaching through education and real-world experiences.

Ever since my early teen years I have been involved in teaching. At 13 years of age I was leading martial arts classes for even younger students. Although the techniques were still quite rudimentary, I found a passion within teaching that has continued to evolve. My teacher as he taught me had enough insight into how much I enjoyed teaching that he began to teach me how to teach. Instead of just throwing concepts or techniques at me, he made sure I understood them all at a deeper level with the intention I continue teaching them. 

I can’t say that academia has always been a major concern for me. Due to unforeseeable reasons, I dropped out of high school when I was 17 years old to help out with the family business. I never thought I would return to a school setting but after many bumps in the road, I eventually found my way back.

The most amazing part about being an educator or at least aspiring to be one is that we are continuously humbled every day through our interactions with colleagues and people above us. These interactions can lead us to new and unique paths that we would have never imagined. My time here at MTU has brought me to psychology and eventually grad school where under my current advisor, Elizabeth Veinott, I have recently been exposed to research regarding the railroad industry. 

While on this new journey through academia I have been able to find ways to combine the knowledge I am receiving from Michigan Tech with my knowledge of the ‘real-world’ and I endeavor daily to become an educator that teaches not just the concepts or ideas but how we can use them within industry and alongside our daily lives.

Social Connections & Mental Well-being

Research has found that having social support plays a vital role in mental health, so building a network that includes family, platonic friends, and other loved ones can be important for our overall wellness. [American Psychological Association. Manage stress: strengthen your support network.]

But before we get into the ways a strong social network promotes health and well-being, it’s important to point out that not all relationships are equal. Just like you can make unhealthy choices around diet and exercise, you can certainly make unhealthy choices when it comes to your friendships and relationships.

This August, CLS welcomed Destaney Sauls, visiting assistant teaching professor from Oakland University. Destaney’s research interests include ways that individual differences shape our interpersonal interactions. Specifically, her focus is on how personality traits (e.g., narcissism or narcissistic traits) shape and are shaped by different sustained interpersonal interactions (e.g., platonic friendships). With over 30 journal articles and conference presentations on the subject of narcissism and social connection, we tapped into Sauls’ knowledge on the subject in the days leading up to October—Mental Health Awareness month. 

Joining us in the conversation is Amber Bennett, CLS adjunct assistant professor. Amber is a licensed master social worker in the State of Michigan and a mental health professional at the Copper Country Intermediate School District. Her teaching experience includes Psychology of Trauma and Abnormal Psychology.

Now let’s jump in . . .

[Sauls]

Q. From your research experience, what have you found is the connection between friendship, social interaction and overall health and well being, and why should we be aware of its significance? 

A. I think it is pretty easy to overlook our friends and how important they can be. We have quite a lot of friends over the course of our lives, but their rules and their roles, even how they start and how they end, tend to be a lot less clearly defined than in other kinds of relationships. I actually think we might be unappreciative of our friends, simply because we have so many! I think that tends to make them a little less “flashy” than other kinds of relationships, even though they are just as important. 

From an evolutionary perspective, friendships don’t always make a ton of sense – why are we so inclined to invest significant amounts of time and resources into a relationship with someone we’re not related to, when we’re not clearly getting something out of it?

But it’s the fact that it doesn’t make sense to invest in an unimportant relationship that means that friendships have to be important. But it probably isn’t one single thing that makes our friends important – it’s the combination of benefits. 

Friends do provide a lot of tangible benefits – they provide support when we need it, whether that be emotional, mental, or physical. People with good friends typically have better outcomes – they’re happier, more stable, and in some cases even physically healthier. Some work even suggests that people with good friends might have better immune systems and better life expectancy. Our friends make us feel good, and they really seem to be good for us in a lot of ways. 

But unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A lack of friends, or a lack of social connections, appears to be really detrimental, especially for our own sense of mental well-being. We knew this, of course, but it became really obvious in the Covid-19 pandemic when we really needed to be more isolated from each other. If you look up “social isolation” you will probably find a lot of articles talking about the Covid-19 pandemic and the well-being of isolated people. They’ll talk about protective factors – for example, things like physical exercise seemed to lessen the impact of being cut off from our social relationships, but the conclusion seems to be that social isolation is extremely detrimental, especially to our mental health. Even being isolated for as little as a couple of weeks seemed to impact our mental health in some pretty harsh ways. Friends, and social connections generally, are really good for your health, but I would be remiss not to mention how detrimental a lack of these relationships may be. 

Q. What do you feel is the definition of friendship?

A. This is actually a somewhat complicated question! In the world of research, it is important to have a clear definition of different terms, but the problem with a word like “friendship” is that it can be so personal – so easily influenced by our experiences and personal perspectives. Hruschka, who has contributed some really interesting ideas to the friendship literature, defined friendships as “long-term relationships of mutual affection and support”. For the purposes of my own research, I typically say something long-winded and specific about what a friend is, like “a friend should be defined as someone with which we share a close, platonic, pleasant, sustained, and voluntary relationship – and someone to whom we may be consistently loyal or committed”. That’s definitely a mouthful just to say what a friend is! But you have to be specific in research – what I really think is important is that “voluntary” piece of the relationship. Friendships are special, and I think a big part of that is that you choose your friends. Why did you choose them? Because you love them. I don’t know if it always has to be more complicated than that.    

Q. What are some indicators that a friend may have narcissistic traits?

A. Narcissistic individuals tend to believe they are the most “special” person in a room, and depending on the “kind” of narcissism, this can mean they are going to try and convince their friends to lift them up, or they are going to try and tear their friends down. Either way, narcissistic individuals in a friendship tend to be trying to get something out of it. They prefer friendships that offer avenues to things like power, or influence. But the good news is that most of the time, it does look like the people they are interacting with do get a sense of something being “not quite right” and they do tend to react accordingly. 

Q. How can a friendship with a narcissist affect our mental well-being?

A. Friendships with narcissistic individuals tend not to end well. They are often very charming at first, but some research suggests it only takes a handful of short meetings for their interaction partners to begin to dislike them. It’s possible this is at least partly because of how the narcissistic individual acts in the relationship – they tend to try and boost themselves up, and this can often mean they derogate others, or engage in inappropriate self-promotion, or even become aggressive when they feel that their status is threatened. For the vast majority of people, friendships with narcissistic individuals probably end fairly quickly, likely because these friendships tend to be fairly unpleasant. 

Interestingly, the people who might get along with a narcissistic individual the best might be other narcissistic individuals! Research around friendships suggests that we really like friends who are similar to us, even in terms of personality traits like narcissistic traits. They appear to recognize, at least on some level, the similarity in their traits and are able to at least tolerate them.

Q. How is social media influencing our social connections and friendships?

A. I actually think social media use is unfairly stigmatized, especially for younger generations. We can’t really expect something like friendships on social media to behave in exactly the same way that friendship might in real life, but I don’t think this necessarily makes them “bad” or “less than” in-person friendships. There are some issues with social media – it is pretty easy to curate an image online that is very different from who you actually are, and it is even easier to add “friends” that you have no real connection to. 

However, there is also a good chance that social media presents unique opportunities to connect with people in a way that we don’t really fully understand. The Internet and social media are still so new in terms of our evolutionary history that we just don’t really know how they are going to impact us in the long run, but the fact of the matter is they are probably here to stay. I think instead of villainizing social media and the Internet, we should instead recognize it for the tool that it is. Is every friendship online going to be absolutely worthwhile, or even comparable to in-person friendships? Maybe not! But at least some of them might be.

Some researchers have argued that social media is simply changing the way we form social networks, but it is not necessarily making them worse – there does appear to be an upper limit to how many meaningful social relationships we can maintain, and that appears to be about 100 to 150. Social media isn’t going to change that, but what it has changed is the sheer amount of options that we have for those social connections. Historically, we have been pretty limited in our options for social relationships simply because we needed a certain amount of physical proximity. Now, if you want to have a best friend that lives on the other side of the world, it is pretty easy to do so. Some work suggests that this might be leading to a kind of “customized sociality” where there is more of an individualized social network centered around the individual.

It’s easy to see social media and think it has a lot of “cheap” or “shallow” relationships, and to a certain extent that might even be true. But it certainly is not all that social media and friendships can be, and I think this is really a tool that we need to be making the most of. And that will probably start with a focus on the quality of our online relationships, which can be difficult when we are so often focused on the quantity. 

Q. How can we take our relationships to the next level? What tips would you like to share for forming and keeping healthy friendships/relationships?

A. As adults, we probably need to dedicate more time to the maintenance of our friendships. Friendships, especially their beginning and end, can be “fuzzy”. This makes the consequences of not putting work into your friendships hard to spot, even though there are definitely consequences. Sometimes it is difficult to dedicate resources to those friendships that are worth maintaining, while letting go of those that just aren’t. In the research world, you’ll hear people refer to “tend and befriend” – if we want to really foster good relationships, it is incredibly important that we don’t neglect that “tend” part. In the busy chaos of our everyday lives, it can be easy to think that the message you’ve been meaning to send to your friend but haven’t quite gotten to it yet isn’t a big deal. But the little things might be more important than you realize, because suddenly you might look up and realize you haven’t spoken to that friend in a year. Put work into your friends. Especially the people who love you enough to put work into you.

Q. How can a person find and make new friends as an adult?

A. It can be really difficult to make good friends, especially as an adult. When we’re younger, we tend to have a lot more “ready made” friend groups – our classes, our teams, etc. When we get older, those easy friendships tend to be harder to come by, but unfortunately our friendships don’t become any less important. I think the best advice that I can give is to find people who have similar interests and try to build a relationship step-by-step. Don’t force it – that’s when things get a little uncomfortable. But trust yourself. You’ve made friends before, you have friends now, and you know what kind of friends you like even if you don’t really think about it that explicitly most of the time. Be open to friendships, and I would say to even pursue them and put work into them. Let them form naturally and those will be your best relationships. Find reasons to interact with people – especially reasons that you enjoy, like a hobby, etc. – the rest will work itself out.

[Bennett]

Q. Some say our experiences of connection or disconnection are deterministic—predicted by our previous experiences of connection. How does our personal baggage affect our relationships?

A. Human connection is a fundamental aspect of our health, well-being, and overall quality of life. While there are documented cases of individuals who live in solitude, as humans we are hard-wired to seek out companionship. In fact, interacting with others is inherent to our ability to survive – physically, socially, and emotionally. It may seem as though relationships should be easy by virtue of them being so critical to our existence. Yet, I would argue that interacting with others is amongst the most challenging aspects of our daily lives. Relationships are hard because they are complicated. We are not simple creatures, and we tend to bring the history of our past relationships into our current ones. 

Our sense of belonging and connection – or relationship – with those around us is largely influenced by our history of bonding with our primary caregivers and then later in life by experiences with our peers. Yet, these experiences are not always positive or healthy representations of relationships. These early memories influence our conceptualization of connection and often lead to similar behaviors with others as we grow and mature. In order to shift to a healthier approach we must recognize what was first modeled for us, be aware of what we have experienced within our own history of connection with others, and be willing to take ownership of and action in shifting the role we play in our current relationships. Again, easier said than done. However, setting healthy boundaries for ourselves, establishing open and honest communication, and remaining our authentic selves can set the stage for improving our connections with others.


This story has been written in recognition of World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2022. The faculty and staff of Cognitive and Learning Sciences at Michigan Tech extends compassion to all who have experienced the darkness of mental health issues, whether it be with ourselves or through our loved ones. Let’s shine our light on the subject. Let’s find and use the tools we have available—even if it is just our own breath, or a friendly smile. Let’s “Make mental health for all a global priority”.

Resources shared by Amber Bennett

Films

Brené Brown: The Call to Courage (2019) available on Netflix

Podcasts (links in Spotify)

On Purpose with Jay Shetty

Super Soul with Oprah Winfrey

Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris

Unlocking Us with Brené Brown

We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle

Books

I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from What Will People Think to I Am Enough (2007) by Brené Brown

Daring Greatly (2012) Brené Brown

Braving the Wilderness (2017) by Brené Brown

Untamed (2020) by Glennon Doyle

University resources

Center for Student Mental Health and Well-being

www.myssp.app