CSU undergrad presents research at international psychology meeting

Karen Gilbert presented her research at the HFES annual meetingKaren Gilbert uses psychology for a lot of things: to figure out priorities and goals, to study effectively – and to find the best way up a climbing wall.

In October, the fourth-year Colorado State University psychology undergraduate presented her own research at the international annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), the world’s largest scientific association dedicated to ergonomics, the study of human factors involved in designing and using machines, systems and devices. The meeting was held this year in Austin, Texas.

In her research, Gilbert found that changing the priority of a task affects decision making. She said that when people are allowed to choose the priority of a certain task, such as completing two separate business tasks, this priority drives their decision making. It also drives which task they focus on – more so than when people don’t pick specific task priority or are given priorities by someone else, such as their boss.

Assigning priority to a task influences that decision, especially if people assign the priority themselves. In other words, we’re more likely to work on something if we’ve decided that it’s a priority.

Gilbert’s presentation was part of a symposium that included three other researchers who spoke on the same topic. One researcher examined priority in health care environments, and another studied how priority affects decisions made in other applied fields such as NASA.

Gilbert said that being surrounded by so many professionals in the field was intimidating at first, but that her presentation went well. She and the other presenters even developed their own catchphrase based on their shared research results:

“Priority matters, but only if it matters to you,” she said.

The lab life

Since her second year, Gilbert has been a research assistant in Cognitive Psychology Professor Benjamin Clegg’s lab in the Department of Psychology. After expressing interest in doing her own research, Gilbert worked under Chris Wickens, an affiliate professor of cognitive psychology in the College of Natural Sciences. Under his guidance, Gilbert designed her own experiment and co-wrote the resulting paper with Wickens

Gilbert’s research fits within a cognitive psychology multitasking model designed by Wickens, called the strategic task overload management (STOM) model. This model predicts that when people have multiple tasks to complete, they are influenced by the task factors of priority, interest, difficulty, and salience. Difficult tasks are less likely to be chosen, but according to the model, people are more likely to stick with a difficult task once they start it.

Wickens is well known within the field of cognitive psychology for his multitasking research but is known at CSU for his work mentoring students. Gilbert said that in working with him, she discovered that they also share an interest in rock climbing.

Despite his international academic reputation, she said, “He’s someone who enjoys climbing, enjoys the mountains, and then gets really excited about psychology.”

Wickens is now Gilbert’s advisor on her undergraduate thesis, which is focused on psychology in rock climbing.

Climbing toward the future

As a coach for the CSU Climbing Team, Gilbert applies her knowledge of psychology to help her teammates reach their climbing goals by identifying which steps to take.

“I think that climbing is definitely a very cognitive sport,” she said. “There are a lot of decisions that have to be made, as in what way you decide to go up the wall, or how do you decide to use your rest time and climbing time effectively.”

She also uses her knowledge of cognitive psychology in school. For example, she doesn’t cram for tests, highlight information or take notes on a computer because these are all proven to be ineffective study techniques. Breaking up study sessions over a long period of time and taking notes by hand are much more impactful on memory, she said.

Gilbert hopes to stay within the psychology field and one day earn a Ph.D. in the subject. Her dream job is to work as a professor at a research university so she can keep exploring the psychology of goals, priority and motivation.

“The more and more I learn about psychology, the more I love it,” she said.