An Interview with Felix Warneken, Ph.D.
Posted by Hannah Park on 2022-01-14
Interview with Dr. Felix Warneken
Interview by Hannah Park
Dr. Felix Warneken is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Psychology, and Principal Investigator at the Social Minds Lab. He received his PhD from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and has previously worked as an Associate Professor at Harvard University. His research interests focus on human social behavior and their origins, studying cross-cultural and cross-species comparisons to find the development of morality in humans.
Hannah: Can you tell me about your research?
Dr. Warneken: My research interests are in studying the origins of social behaviors in humans but also in primates to look at the evolution of behaviors, such as cooperative behaviors or morality, for example. So the idea is to approach this through these developmental methods but also through comparative methods to compare humans with other animals to see what has deeper evolutionary roots and what’s unique to humans.
Hannah: Why did you pursue a career in academia?
Dr. Warneken: Basically, I chose to go to university to study psychology because you have quite some flexibility in what to do next. It’s a field where you could go into research, academia, or you could do something more applied. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in the clinical psychology direction, but then I was just really intrigued by the questions in developmental psychology and the exploration to discover new things. There are always new questions and answers, and that is what has always been the most fascinating to me.
Hannah: What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
Dr. Warneken: Well, I think this is true for most jobs, but the time - there is always too many things to do in too little time. I think that’s really the most challenging thing.
As a faculty member, the challenging thing is that we have to do so many different kinds of things at the same time. We have to teach, do administrative tasks, supervise students, run our own studies, write, get money, submit grant proposals, and a lot of other things in the scientific community, such as reviewing papers, working as a journal editor, organizing meetings and conferences, and so forth. There are just so many things happening at the same time, and all of them are urgent. There is always some deadline that needs to be met, so that’s the challenging part. It’s just a lot to do in radically different things at the same time, especially during the semester.
UMURJ emphasizes the importance of highlighting multiple perspectives and fields of research. How important is it to collaborate with other fields and disciplines, especially in developmental psychology?
Because psychology is so broad, there is a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration within psychology that is happening. Someone who is more trained in social psychology with adults typically versus someone who studies children do very different kinds of things on one level, but those disciplines meet in other ways. You realize that you’re actually addressing similar questions, but they are approached by different kinds of methods and assumptions. Because of that, I would say interdisciplinary studies and collaboration between people with different views are really important.
Hannah: But sometimes, this can become really difficult because these studies are all happening within the same larger field.
Dr. Warneken: I think collaboration ultimately, though, is really important because you learn something about how other disciplines or sub disciplines approach something, but even more than that, you learn how you yourself approach something, like the assumptions we make within your own sub discipline, such as something like experimental developmental psychology. You realize that, for example, economists think about similar behavior really differently, or anthropologists, or even social psychologists, all think about things differently, so I have to be able to explain myself and my field to these people. It makes you realize that, “Oh, this is a blindspot for others, but it’s just something we assume in the field.” It can help you even realize that, “Maybe we shouldn’t have certain assumptions,” or that “This is assumed by us but not by other people,” and so you have to be able to explain the decisions you make and the foundation for those decisions.
For example, many people will say that studies in developmental psychology are artificial. That they do not reflect the real world. And I would say, “Well, yeah, they’re artificial on purpose. We want to look at basic mechanisms and strip away other factors, like everyday thoughts, assumptions, and biases, as much as possible. We want to look at the core features. Even then, it’s still related to the real world because our studies find mechanisms that mirror a certain phenomenon found in the real world.”
These are the kinds of debates we have, and I’m always surprised how it’s not clear to other people. But then you realize the merit of your own approach in these types of interdisciplinary conversations.
Hannah: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who want to pursue research?
Dr. Warneken: Start. Just start. There is not a lot of planning you can do. Get involved and try to rotate through different labs early on as an RA, and try different things out. Maybe early on, you find a lab studying a topic that interests you and something you want to keep studying, and then you can eventually go all the way to an honors thesis with them. Or sometimes people will start out in one thing and then realize it’s not quite exactly what they wanted and will move on to a different kind of lab. Someone might start with children's research and then realize it isn’t for them and figure out they want to do something more technical, like in computational modeling, for example. You can even go full circle. I’ve had it where people start out with one thing, and then move to a different thing, and then come back because they realized actually what they did early on was more interesting for them and that’s what they want to do in a thesis.
My main point is to not wait too long or to be too choosy. Just try it out. The University of Michigan is great because we offer everything. It’s such a huge school that you can sometimes feel lost amongst everything here but then there are also science fairs that departments organize, which is a way to learn what’s going on specifically. You can see the people and not just look at websites. That would be my recommendation.
My general recommendation: Just go ahead and try it out. Then try to find specifics by going to research fairs, look at websites, and reach out to people.
Hannah: What is the importance or role of undergraduate students in your research?
Dr. Warneken: They’re essential. We always have over a dozen undergraduates each semester working on our different projects. We have a team based approach, so there is always some project leader, typically a PhD student, and they will have their team of 2-4 undergraduate research assistants who work for them. Ideally, this is something where someone starts out more on the periphery and learns things as an apprentice, and then over time, become more confident as they learn more stuff.
In the second semester, we always sign up new people for at least two semesters and with the intention they’ll stay on. Obviously things might change, but the idea is that if people stay for a year, you can really move from the periphery to the center and become more independent in conducting studies and coding videos, stuff like that.
It is essential. We can’t do our research without the help from undergrads. And then the ideal situation is that people grow up in our lab and ultimately, as a senior lab member, write an honors thesis or run studies independently. That’s the goal. This year we are really lucky. We have built up a great team of RA’s who have been around for longer periods of time, and there are always new people coming in, which is also great to have. You build generations in some sense. You always have new ideas and more expertise that can be passed on, so that’s better than if everyone was a novice and didn’t know how to do things yet. Or if everyone was old and stuck in their own ways. Then you would know what everyone else already thinks. So right now we’re at a good place.
Hannah: Is there anything about academia that you had wished you’d known before going into it?
Dr. Warneken: I don’t know if this is true for academia, more broadly, but certainly for the kind of stuff we have to do here as empirical psychologists is how much management there is and how much administrative stuff there is. You have to sell your studies, apply for grants, and convince administrators at the university that this is how things should be run.
I did not realize that there is so much outside of the scholarly aspect of academia. Reading, writing, discussing ideas with people, and analyzing data … so much of the job is just preparing to do those things. Basically how I imagine it is like for film directors and producers. You spend years getting funded, and it’s never clear if the plan will work out or not. Then finally, after all those years, you actually get to make the film. We also spend so much time before we can even start our research. I wasn’t aware of that.
It’s not true for all of academia, but in empirical developmental psychology, it’s certainly the case. And it’s all the more true for fields that are actually expensive, like if you have major machinery you need, or like at the medical school, where people spend so much time to get banking. If there was something I wish I had known early on, and it’s something that surprises me every time, is how much time I spend on administrative stuff before being able to do any kind of research and thinking.
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