Google-fu is discipline-specific

I just used a “21st century skill” (teh Googlez, I uses it) to help an anthropologist colleague track down some good starting points on social psychology as it relates to inequality, oppression and resilience.

And it reminded me what I often find with my students: the way I use Google is different from the way that they do. Why is this? Not because I know binary searches, or Google Scholar, or whatever, but because I know psychology. Because I have critical background knowledge, my ten minutes is useful, whereas most people could take an hour and it not be useful. This is not a 21st century skill, but rather a rich background in my subject area, gained by reading books, articles, and taking classes in social and cognitive psychology.

I’m going to try to detail some of that knowledge here.

First, I know websites that are more likely to be legit or useful. I google “psychology of resilience” and I get this. But I scan down the list. Wikipedia,, huffington post, something called last updated in 2006, a few journal articles…

So I glance at wikipedia for a while, skimming a bit, then scrolling down to the notes and the references. As I look over the references, I can pick out which articles are written for which audience, judging by which journal they appear in, and what the title is. I know that an article published in JPSP (The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) is much more likely to be targeted at other social psychologists, or even subgroups of social psychologists. Whereas articles in Current Directions in Psychological Science are targetted at a much broader group, and would be a good entry into the field. While JPSP articles are not a suitable entry point, they can be a marker that an investigator has done good work in that field. Someone’s book or Current Directions piece is going to have more credibility with me if they have published studies in those other fora.

I come across familiar names: Michael Rutter, Barbara Frederickson, Richie Davidson. These pop into my mind for a reason: they have received awards at conferences I’ve been to, they are big names in their fields. I wasn’t able to name them exactly when Kate asked, but now that I see them in the reference list in Wikipedia (of course, most of the links I clicked were broken) I know that they will be good places to start.

After clicking on some broken links in Wikipedia, I go to the websites of those investigators. Here is Barbara Frederickson’s publication list. Oh look, here’s an American Psychologist article, with Sara Algoe (who I knew in graduate school, neat). That will definitely have a good introduction section, and a great reference section. There is a Current Directions article, and a pdf, nice.

Looking at the journals can tell me the audience, but then I can look at the titles to get a sense of the approach once you drill down.

“predictors and consequences of long-term behavior change”

“social closeness increases salivary progresterone”

Loving-kindness meditation to enhance recovery from negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

There are a lot of schizophrenia articles here, and a lot about meditation. It is also evident  that social psychology is what John Caccioppo has called a “hub discipline” between other fields such as neuroscience, psychiatry, and sociology (just to name a few).

Anyways, I sent Kate a few links which I thought were good places to start. But looking at these sources (and poring carefully over the list of Barbara Frederickson’s publications) you can start to see how social psychologists look at this issue. Despite being very interested in resilience, the word oppression doesn’t appear on that page at all. Why is that? Social psychologists don’t really look at recovery or resilience from oppression, but from things that are much easier to define and measure, such as schizophrenia, negative emotional events, grief, depression, anticipated threat and terrorist attacks (ok, maybe not that much easier). And you can see how the lenses of affect and emotion, and of temporary situational states or personality traits, are reflected in the approaches of social psychologists towards the topic of resilience.

Anyways, just a few quick thoughts as I am procrastinating the last little bit of grading that I have this semester. At the start of the summer, I have a few blog posts I am finishing up. Stay tuned!

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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4 Responses to Google-fu is discipline-specific

  1. Robert Cooper says:

    Thanks Cedar. You made me think about my use of Google. I use it as a tool much as one uses a dictionary to look for the meaning of a specific word (although the term ‘dictionary’ originates from the pronunciation not meaning of a word). Regular use does lead to a self-training and a recognition from the short lead-entry that clicking an item might be relevant or irrelevant. I personally regret that list-entries do not contain dates if they are articles — I am often led into reading something that would have been of interest and use, until I get to the point where I realise something is being said that has since been discredited, revised or said better. Updating of Google is not necessary — and sometimes I want the perspective in 1995 but given fresh at that time — a date visible before clicking would definitely help, particularly where statistics are involved.

    Google is of course a tool to locating information and now it is part of us, how did we manage before it? It must be considered an important part of modern culture. At the same time, as you point out, one can go straight to what one is looking for (if it exists) in seconds or minutes, or one can ‘Google-around’ for an hour. Such hours are not necessarily wasted. We might not be looking for the theoretical concept of Black Swan when searching to know about swans as a species, but accidentally hitting on it is itself something of a ‘Black Swan’ — by accident rather than design it could have a tremendous impact on our thinking and doing.

    We can come to significant information and new ways of seeing through several means and a straight disciplined approach is not always the only one appropriate. When using that old-fashioned dictionary to look up a specific word, we invariably see several words related to the one we are looking for and might find our eyes and mind ‘straying’ to a word that was certainly not on our search path but draws our attention. When using a foreign-language dictionary, this ‘by accident’ factor can itself be very instructive and one can use a foreign language dictionary deliberately ‘vaguely’ — like looking through a popular magazine to see what catches the eye. Looking up words in a dictionary (or on Google) can be fun and learning can have a discovery by accident aspect. Perhaps worth keeping in mind.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Great comment, Robert. Agree that Google (and wikipedia, and many other web sites) can be powerful learning tools, and that time surfing is not necessarily wasted.

  2. Pingback: Time for some 21st century honesty | Best Education

  3. Pingback: Time for some 21st century honesty | K-Blog

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