Interview with Prof. Steven Luck

Steven J. Luck is Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Center for Mind & Brain at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Luck is known for his research on the neural and cognitive mechanisms of attention and working memory in healthy young adults and dysfunctions of attention and working memory in psychiatric and neurological disorders. He is also a leading authority on ERP research and leads ERP Boot Camps.

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What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … What I enjoy most is designing experiments.  We can’t see or touch the human mind, so it is a great challenge to figure out creative ways of testing hypotheses about cognitive processes.  And at the point of experimental design, everything can be clean and beautiful, unmarred by the inevitable complexities of actual data.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … The biggest challenge is always the lack of time.  There are many many things that I find interesting and would like to pursue, but there is never enough time.  This means I often have to say “no” to interesting opportunities.  But saying “no” to a lot of things is the only way you can do a good job on the things you pursue.

One research project I will never forget is… I will never forget how our research on visual working memory began.  I was sitting on an airplane on the way to a conference, drawing pictures of stimuli with a pen.  I suddenly had the idea for a task in which participants would see a display briefly, followed by a short delay, and then see either the same display or a slightly different display (with the task of making a same-different response).  In the next 15 minutes, I thought of about 50 different questions that could be answered with this approach.  After I did some reading, I discovered that others had previously “discovered” this change detection task (most notably Phillips, 1974), but they had only answered about 48 of the 50 questions I had come up with. When I got back from the conference, I explained some of these ideas to a bright young graduate student, Ed Vogel, and he went on to do a series of experiments that were published in Nature (Luck & Vogel, 1997).  Eighteen years have passed since we started that line of research, and we’re both still doing research on this topic (separately, because Ed is now a Professor at the University of Oregon, but we still talk frequently).

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … I always look for what we call “fire in the belly”, which is the intense, almost overwhelming desire to do research that answers questions about the human mind and brain.  This is hard to measure, but I look for evidence that a student has not just done a good job of the standard things that students typically do, but that the student has gone beyond the usual activities because of an unstoppable need to be involved in research.

Academically, I most admire …Anne Treisman, because she has developed innovative theories that are based on previous knowledge but take a large and creative step forward, and then she has come up with many converging approaches to rigorously test these theories.  She has not published a million papers, but every one of her papers has had a real impact on the field.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … I wish someone had told me that doing well at administrative tasks (and even making thoughtful suggestions) means that you will be punished by being given more and more administrative tasks.  On the other hand, if you don’t offer many ideas in meetings and you’re always a little late at getting things done, you’re rewarded by being given fewer responsibilities.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … I hope that the largest change in the next 10 years will be a radical rethinking of the incentives that have gradually been introduced into the research process over the last 20 years.  The main goal in research used to be getting respect from other people in your field because of the strength and importance of your scientific contributions.  Now there are real financial incentives for getting grants, publishing papers in top-tier journals, etc.  These incentives have had the opposite of the desired effect: They have led people to aim for the measured signs of success (grants and papers), which can often be most easily achieved by low-quality, unreliable, but “sexy” research.  This is one of the main causes of the current “replicability crisis”, and I very much hope that this will change now that the scope of the problem is becoming evident.

 

About the author

Jonas Haslbeck Jonas is a Senior Editor at the Journal of European Psychology Students. He is currently a PhD student in psychological methods at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. For further info see http://jmbh.github.io/.

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