Professor Spotlight: Dr. Rachel Severson

Portrait of Rachel Severson with a small white robot.

In this episode, we’re in the flow with Dr. Rachel Severson who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, the Director of the Experimental Psychology Doctoral Program, and the Director of the Minds Lab. Rachel reads an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem At the River Clarion, which launches our discussion of baseline shifting, her research on the attribution of minds to non-human agents, and being open to new paths in your life and research.

Episode Extras

Rachel’s UM webpage: 

Rachel's blog about her sailing trip to Norway:

A Wenatchee World article about Rachel’s sailing trip to Norway: 

Robert Sapolsky on the TED stage: 

The biology of our best and worst selves | Robert Sapolsky

Interview Transcript

SHAILEE WOODARD: I think that the most valuable thing that Rachel has provided me as an advisor is listen to me and given me the space to do my own things and encouraged my own growth as a researcher. 

KAETLYN CORDINGLEY: I think Rachel is exactly the type of advisor that we need more of in graduate education. She is motivating and inspirational both in her own work and also in her interactions with the students with whom she works.   

SARAH SWEEZY: She’s someone who encourages a work/life balance and it’s not just work, work, work. Although there is a lot of hard work required, she also wants to make sure that as a person you’re doing well. 

ASHBY KINCH: This is Confluence where great ideas flow together, a podcast of the Graduate School of the University of Montana. On Confluence, we travel down the tributaries of wisdom and beauty that enrich the soil of knowledge on our beautiful mountain campus. You just heard the voices of Shailee Woodard, Kaetlyn Cordingley, and Sarah Sweezy, graduate students in UM’s doctoral program in Psychology, talking about our guest on this week’s episode, Dr. Rachel Severson. 

I'm your host, Ashby Kinch, Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and I am delighted Rachel’s joining us on Confluence. She’s relatively new to UM, having taken up a position in 2016 in the Experimental Psychology program, where she mentors graduate students in Development Psychology. She is Director of the Minds Lab, where she and her research team explore the attribution of minds and internal states to other humans and non-human agents, including non-human animals, inanimate nature, and robots. Rachel is also doing important collaborative work with the Missoula Public Library, where she and her team run the “UM Living Lab,” which aims to connect the amazing research going on at UM with public audiences. 

Every episode on Confluence, our guests read a passage about rivers drawn from poetry or literature. Rachel has selected a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, “At the River Clarion.” We’ll hear her read it, and dive straight into the episode, in which we discuss her research interests in developmental psychology, including her unique and engaging story of how she came to pursue her PhD in Psychology after early work in environmental policy and a stint in AmeriCorps. She’s also an intrepid explorer, having sailed a boat to Norway, where she had a one-year Fulbright Fellowship, before starting her post-doctorate research fellowship at Vancouver.But first, we’ll hear her voice, channeling the voice of Mary Oliver, who asks us to listen to the voices of the river. Welcome to Confluence, where the river is always with us! 

RACHEL SEVERSON: This is an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver entitled Athe River Clarion: 

I don't know who God is exactly. 

But I'll tell you this.  

I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splash stone 

and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking. 

Whenever the water struck the stone it had something to say, 

and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.  

And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.  

Said the river I am part of holiness. 

And I too said the stone. And I too whispered the moss beneath the water.  

I've been to the river before, a few times. 

Don't blame the river that nothing happened quickly.  

You don't hear such voices in an hour or a day. 

You don't hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears. 

And it's difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic and ambition. 

Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going. 

Imagine how the lily (who may also be part of God) would sing to you if it 

could sing, if you would pause to hear it.  

And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn't sing? 

KINCH: Welcome to Confluence, Rachel. 

SEVERSON: Thank you, Ashby. It's nice to be here. 

KINCH: Yeah, that's such a beautiful poem, such an amazing choice. You know, on Confluence we really try to stress interdisciplinarity and the conversation that goes on in a great university. And, of course, poetry is in my wheelhouse. I'm an English professor. So, I was just delighted you picked it. Tell us a little bit about why. Why'd you pick that poem? 

SEVERSON: There are probably a few reasons. One, I love Mary Oliver. I love poetry as well, and I think that she captures in her work a way of seeing the world and a way of being in the world that both inspires me and resonates with me. And I really liked how this poem in particular kind of pushes us to think what we might be missing. 

KINCH: And how how'd you come across her work? And what got you in and what got you into poetry in general? 

SEVERSON: Well, I started writing poetry when I was a young child. I'm not going to embarrass myself by sharing those early works. 

KINCH: None of us want to share our early work. 

SEVERSON: But, you know, I don't remember where I first came upon her work. I think the book that has this poem was given to my husband and I as a wedding gift. So that was a long time ago.  

KINCH: Careful.  

SEVERSON: Yeah, I won't say, but anyway it's been a couple of decades that I've known her work. 

KINCH: Yeah. And it's, you know, there's an amazing subtlety to her voice, which I love that the poems accumulate. They kind of build on themselves.  


KINCH: Initially things are so simple. It's like a casual, conversational tone, but by the end you kind of feel something has happened. That's why I love the way you said that a way of being in the world. The craft of this poem is amazing too. I mean, you know, that phrase: if selfhood has stuffed your ears. I love that phrase. The metaphor of ourselves kind of filling up our entire inside-out maybe and filling it up and blocking the way we hear the world.  

SEVERSON: Yeah, yeah. 

KINCH: And audition is such a key component of this. What we hear in the world outside of us. 

SEVERSON: Yeah, yeah. That we can't hear. Maybe if we're, if we're so consumed by, you know, by ourselves and what's happening inside.  

KINCH: And you said something in an email about this poem that it's also about sort of baseline shifting. 

SEVERSON: Yeah. There's a lot to unpack there. The idea with the shifting baseline is that out of our experience we form, you know, kind of this norm or a baseline of what we have experienced, what we think of as normal. And for children in the environmental realm we see that the idea plays out where what kids experience in their childhood for, you know, what is nature that that then is a baseline against which they will compare any future change. And so, with each new generation, these baselines are established. So, what you have over time is, at least in our history in these last, you know, decades and centuries is a degradation. And these new baselines are being established with each generation, but they're shifted downward in terms of what is -- what, what does wildness mean? What does intact natural environment mean? And yet we as individuals don't necessarily experience that shift because we are comparing our -- these kinds of more incremental changes to this baseline, but we can't from a psychological perspective really take into account the vast change that's occurred across generations. 

KINCH: Yeah. That's great. And so, a poem like Mary Oliver's poem is trying to get us to, to get back to some direct encounter that allows us to kind of experience what that baseline might be like, right? To hear those stones and listen to the lily to be more attentive to a world that might maybe broaden the spectrum of our baseline. 


KINCH: Yeah. And that last bit of the passage, which ends with a question, I think that's great, right? The question being: how are you so certain anyway it doesn't sing. 


KINCH: So that's getting right at this point that, you know, we take for granted the lily doesn't have a voice, but, you know, but asking that as a question means maybe we attend to the lily slightly differently. So, it takes this old biblical metaphor and kind of reawakens it. That there's a voice to be heard there. That’s fantastic. Well, and so, your research, I mean, I think another one of the connections to the poem and we can kind of use it to kind of move into your research is this is an animate world that Mary Oliver has given us. It's a world that has recognizable human characteristics in it. And a lot of what you do in your work in the Minds Lab is kind of explore that, explore the ways in which children attribute internal states or mental states to both human and non-human agents. Tell us a little bit about that research and how it came to pass. How'd you kind of get into that research area? 

SEVERSON: Yeah. So, in the Minds Lab my research team and I look at how kids understand others as having minds and internal states. And so, internal states include things like feelings, intentions, thoughts, knowledge, beliefs. And we look at that not only with how kids do that with people. At many times that's our starting point. But how do they do that with natural entities? That can be animals. It can be inanimate nature, like trees and rocks, and also other types of non-human others. And in the, in our world today, technology is a huge part of our experience and children's experience. And so, looking at how kids understand personified technologies, you know, whether they be your smart speaker or a personified robot.  

KINCH: Yeah. And so, you had said that you, the, the robot research that you've published has had kind of a bit of an impact. That's one of the pieces that you're… 


KINCH: It's had a little bit of a splash 

SEVERSON: It has, you know, when I was first starting as a graduate student myself it was very fringe. And in fact, organizers of conferences weren't really sure where to put us. So, we would often get put with like comparative psychology, which would be like, you know, studying, you know, or, primates and such. And now, it's not fringe now, but definitely much more on the cutting edge. And there are many more people that are doing this work. And so, yeah, so some of my work, I think really pushed the field into just being curious about how do kids understand these things, you know, the robots and personified technologies more generally.  

KINCH: Yeah. And you and I have never talking about this, but I work on this Keck Foundation grant. I've interacted a lot with neuroscientists on campus over years, and I do some teaching and literature in the brain. And in fact, I just taught that in the fall. How does this sort of set of ideas you're working on kind of converge with the work being done in biology on mirror neurons and as a kind of physiological base for some of this because I know a lot of the research in these Italian labs is about the sort of mechanics of the recognition of imitation as a sort of function, a biological function of our brains that when we see a motion -- and so initially they were studying it with monkeys looking at other monkeys. But eventually they substituted robots, mechanical arms and found a lot of interesting, you know, findings around the response mechanism as a kind of wired-in, hardwired-in mechanism. How does that kind of, you know, relate to the work you can do in your lab?  

SEVERSON: Yeah. Well, yeah great question. I mean, so one: we don't do neuroscience in my lab. But certainly, there's overlapping questions around, you know, how do we categorize? And we can see with using, you know, not primates, but using human infants and this is worked by others that, you know, different areas of the brain will light up if they're looking at, you know, objects -- animate versus inanimate objects. And yet, you know, so then what happens with this, you know, kind of new category. In fact, we've talked about this as like that personified technologies may represent a new ontological category that are, you know, kind of combination. and, in fact, I think that's been one of the really interesting findings in my work is that kids don't see personified technologies as an either/or, but it's more like they choose from like a menu of characteristics. So, say like we ask questions about biology, like, you know, can they pee and poop? Can they, can they die in a biological way? Not with batteries. So, ask biological questions. We can ask perceptual questions, like, do they, do they see? Can they feel when you touch them? And then psychological internal states, like, you know, do they have feelings like happy and sad? And even moral questions like can they, do they have moral standing? Can they be morally accountable? And what I think the fascinating pieces that kids are, and this is kids as young as three years old, they get that they're not biological. But they still think that they have, they can perceive, they have emotions. They can think, they can be your friend and that they have moral standing and accountability.  

KINCH: You mentioned in your email with me that one of your intellectual heroes was Robert Sapolsky. What a fascinating person, right? I mean and just what made me think about it right now is that you've been talking about anthropological theory. That's clearly been an influence on you. You know, there's a deep interdisciplinary route to your work. Sapolsky of course started as an anthropologist and then did this PhD in neuroendocrinology and has had an influence in a lot of fields. Is that kind of the root of why he's one of your heroes or is it more his adventurous spirit? 

SEVERSON: Oh, well I think, um, actually it's some, well, yes, yes. All of those things. But I think actually something -- something else I think that really strikes me about him as an intellectual is his openness to revising deep held assumptions. And I think that that comes about in his work. As you mentioned, he traveled a lot and a lot of his work was studying baboons in Africa. And there's a great story about -- baboons are highly aggressive. A lot of violence, strict hierarchies. And, and the reason that Sapolsky was studying them was because he was studying stress and they were a model species of stress. And particularly, you know, for the ones that were on the receiving end of all that aggression and violence. And the, so what happened with this troop that he had been studying was that the neighboring troop started getting food from, thrown out from a tourist lodge. And so, the alpha males of the troops Sapolsky was studying discovered this. And so, they started going -- just the alpha males started going over to this garbage dump as well. And after some time, the people running this tourist lodge called Sapolsky and said can you come, there's something really wrong with the baboons.  

KINCH: Do something with your baboons… 

SEVERSON: Well, no, it was more that they weren't, I don't think they were worried. I mean, I don't know, but they saw that something was wrong with the baboons. And what had happened was that there had been some meat infected with tuberculosis and the baboons had consumed that and it's fatal. So, this other troop was wiped out and all of the alpha males in the troop that supposed Sapolsky was steadying were also wiped out. 

KINCH: Oh, wow. So, the hierarchy suddenly shifted dramatically.  

SEVERSON: The hierarchy suddenly shifted. And Sapolsky saw like very unusual behaviors. There was a lot more grooming within the troop. There was far less aggression and young males that were coming into the troop -- so young males are the ones who have to like they have to go make their way into another troop. Rather than being sidelined for months and months and having lots of aggression against them they were being brought in within three days. And he thought, oh my God, they've been ruined because of this event. So, he went to the other side of the preserve, where he was studying, started studying a new group. Anyway, years later he came back with his soon to be wife and he wanted to show her where he first cut his teeth in, in doing this work. And that troop that had this unnatural event, they had maintained this new culture. And, in fact, it's now been a few decades that this troop has maintained this culture. And so, here's the part that I think is so fascinating with that story is it has been thought that baboons that their hierarchy, their violence and aggression is innate. 

KINCH: Hardwired. 

SEVERSON: It's hardwired. This suggests that it is open to cultural change.  

KINCH: Yeah, yeah. 

SEVERSON: And, and I think that that is -- it's such a powerful lesson in his ability to be open to totally revising a core assumption within his field. 

KINCH: Yeah.  

SEVERSON: And deepening our understanding in a profound way. 

KINCH: Yeah. And I think that, I mean, so often that happens because of people asking questions across a disciplinary boundary. And I think it's a great segue because I want to hear about your change, like your shift. What drove, you know, so undergraduate degree in environmental policy, what drove the turn to psychology? Because, of course, we've already heard you're thinking deeply about the environment in your work, but you're doing it through this other lens, this lens of psychology. How, how'd that happen and what drove that? 

SEVERSON: Yeah. So, when I was an undergraduate doing my work in environmental policy and minoring in chemistry, I actually never took a psychology class as an undergrad. I don't know if I should share that.  

KINCH: I think that’s great to share. I think that's amazing. Because we make pivots, right? I mean this happens. 

SEVERSON: Yes. Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of times when I'm talking with undergrads and they're trying to figure out what do I do next. Like, what's my trajectory? And I think their assumption is that all of us that are, you know, have had very linear paths and that I think is helpful for them to hear like, no, many of us -- maybe most of us -- have had major pivots.  

KINCH: Yeah. That that's healthy and that's actually a sign of intellectual vitality. And I would say a sign of a really strong academic culture that it supports that kind of change or shift.  


KINCH: Yeah, so tell us.  

SEVERSON: Yeah, so how did my shift… So, I got my BS and, yeah, so the -- I guess it started, maybe it started with right after I graduated, I took a trip for three months into Nepal and a little bit into India and was, you know, just trekking in the Himalayas. And I found that I was really interested in what kids were doing. And, I should back up to say, like, I did have some environmental education experience while I was doing my undergraduate work. But it was kind of with older kids, you know, fifth grade, high school students. I did an internship at the Presidio in San Francisco doing environmental education and really loved it and was truly interested in how do kids form a deep value for the natural world. And so, I had that as background, but I wasn't really like inherently interested in younger kids. I think I just didn't really have a lot of experience. And anyway, when I was traveling in Nepal, I found that I was really fascinated by young kids and, and how they, you know, just their way of being and how they understood things. And if you've ever, you know, traveled in a country where you don't speak the language, kids are often the ones that will try to engage you and they'll be patiently helping you.  

KINCH: 100 percent. I lived in Malaysia and Indonesia and I had that experience everywhere I went. That that's often the first connection. 

SEVERSON: Yeah. And so that was really true for me 

KINCH: They’re also fascinated, right? They're interested in you because you're different 

SEVERSON: Oh my gosh. Oh yeah. And I was -- a part of that trip. My husband, he wasn't my husband at the time, but now, and, and he has kind of, he has red hair, kind of auburn hair. And they were really fascinated by him as well. And anyway, so I came back from that and I think it just kind of opened up my eyes and I was having a conversation with my now mother-in-law we were on a hike, and -- in the Cascade Mountains in Washington state -- and, she had a background in psychology and taught human development at the junior college. And it was that conversation that I kind of learned that there was this entire field of developmental psychology and they really just didn't know it existed. And it -- what I realized in that conversation is that the questions that I was having were really psychological questions and that opened up an entire world for me. And it really brought together my interests in the environment and this emerging interest in terms of how kids understand their world and value their world.  

SEVERSON: Yeah. So, yeah, so that I think was really -- it was, I mean, I remember that I remember that hike. And I remember that conversation because it really had a profound effect on my life. 

KINCH: Yeah. And it's funny, your story also has, you know, you talked about travel as being one of these precipitating events and that's part of your story too. Your, you know, your transoceanic voyage to your Fulbright Fellowship in Norway on a boat. I mean, that's an incredible thing to take on, right? You know, to make this big passage. So, travel's clearly been important, and you’re clearly an adventurous spirit, right? So, how’d you end up here? How’d you, what’s your Montana story? 

SEVERSON: Yeah. My Montana story is -- so I was a ski bum for a few years in Jackson Hole. But, I grew up mostly in the state of Washington in Western Washington. And so, my traveling back and forth, we would come right through Missoula and I was taken with Montana. I mean, I feel like Montana and Wyoming have, you know, a lot in common. And I think I was taken with the Rocky Mountains. And, in fact, we -- maybe one of my first introductions to Missoula more intimately was our car broke down right before we got to Missoula. It was an early morning, cold, cold morning. And we blew a head gasket. And so, we ended up limping into Missoula into the repair shop. And so, we had to spend a couple days here and then funny enough a different car a couple of years later broke down coming to Missoula and we -- and my husband and I kind of laugh that, like, we feel like this place… 

KINCH: The Bermuda Triangle of the West…  

SEVERSON: Yeah, it’s kind of pulling us in. Yeah. Anyway, we had a friend, you know, some friends that lived here and we'd come visited and went backcountry skiing up at Lolo Pass. And so, kind of had an introduction to the area. But, you know, love the region more generally. So, when this job came up at University of Montana, I actually wasn't really looking for a job. I was at a post-doc at University of British Columbia and was, you know, just barely a year into this post-doc when I saw the job posting and it was a three-year post-doc and I loved it and I wasn't really looking to leave. But I saw this job at University of Montana, and was like, oh my God. Like you can't -- as an academic it's very hard to choose where you're going to live.  

KINCH: Absolutely. Nearly impossible. 

SEVERSON: It's nearly impossible. And so, this was kind of, you know, just I mean, it was the only job I applied for, which is a terrible strategy if you're trying to get a job in academia. It's a numbers game. And so, but I thought, you know, if I could get this job, I would leave my post-doc. Like this is my dream job. And so, I applied and was thrilled when I was offered the position. And so, I feel like, you know, sometimes things just kind of come together and you don't always know why, you know? 

KINCH: But the story of it coming together is also, I think part of, you know, there's a certain group of people who are going to so deeply appreciate the place. That, you know, you were already predisposed to deeply appreciating the place. And then it just so happens its psychology is a fantastic department, right? It's also a place where you can come in and exercise the full range of your intellectual ability. But then, you know, you were already predisposed you weren't somebody who's going to come in and say, wow, gosh, it's so cold in the winter. 

SEVERSON: Yeah. I mean, we are the people who were willing to, you know, live iced in in our sailboat in the winter in Oslo. This seemed comparatively easy.  

KINCH: Yeah. Piece of cake. 

SEVERSON: Yeah. But I think also one thing that really attracted me once I interviewed for the position, quite honestly, was the culture of the psychology department here. And I just want to say that they have had a culture that is really supportive and collegial. And not every university, not every department at any university has that.  

KINCH: Right.  

SEVERSON: And that really solidified my wanting to come here.  

KINCH: Well, that's a fantastic segue to, you know, graduate education and your role as a mentor. You know, one thing we talk about on this podcast a lot actually is -- and every guest I asked them something about failure and struggle because it is such a part of the professor's life. I mean, none of us have like a smooth, continuous, you know, line of success. We always run into roadblocks and obstacles and, you know, I had a graduate mentor who told me that the single most determining factor on who succeeds in academia is how you deal with rejection. It's just part of it, right? And so, there's a famous couple of scientists Melanie Stefan and Johannes Haushofer who have called this the CV of failures and they actually publish their CV of all of their rejections as a way to de-stigmatize that. Of saying, you know -- and so you have this great practice, which I want you to tell the listeners about. The rejection collection.  

SEVERSON: Yeah. So, this is borrowed from Barbara Sarnecka, a colleague, who I think, you know, I think she came up with it and I adopted it from her. So, the rejection collection is -- so anytime we have anyone in my lab and we can extend this. Ashby become part of our rejection collection. 

KINCH: I got a little file folder in my office.  

SEVERSON: Oh good. And so, anytime we have a rejection, whether it's, you know, an article that we're trying to get published, whether it's, you know, an application for a job or a scholarship or fellowship, anything where we're having to put ourselves out there. Grants. I contribute to it that way. And we list our rejections. And, you know, you can make a note saying like, you know, if you want to, you know, kind of explain or say like, you know, any sort of caveats you want to add, but list your rejection. And when we get to a certain number of rejections, we celebrate. We have a party. 

KINCH: Yeah.  

SEVERSON: And what I love about it is that it turns something that feels hard and disappointing into something that's normalized.  

KINCH: Yep.  

SEVERSON: Everybody is rejected. It's, you know, in this process, you have to be because we're constantly putting ourselves out there and we're always going to get, you know, best case scenario, you get, you know, revise and resubmit on a publication. You know, when you are first putting it in. And anyway, it's just a way of us really turning something that feels negative into a positive. And people feel like they're like, oh yes, I get to contribute to the rejection collection. 

KINCH: And I think our graduate students need to hear that message, right? From the beginning because I think part of what a lot of us experienced in grad school is imposter syndrome in the sense that you don't belong. And this can be a kind of way of breaking into that a little bit and sort of saying, Hey, no, this is all of us or all of us are into this -- whatever placid surface we may be showing.  

SEVERSON: Right.  

KINCH: We're all dealing with this. So, is that an attribute? What kinds of attributes are you looking for in your graduate students when students apply?  

SEVERSON: Yeah, first and foremost, so our program is a mentor mentee model. And so first and foremost, there has to be an alignment between what the student is interested in and the faculty member’s expertise. And so that we can, you know, actually mentor the student. And so, I look for first and foremost, someone who has some overlap with my expertise and I'm probably willing to stretch more than some. I think that I'm kind of intellectually curious and broad, and I'm willing to kind of go into areas that maybe I wouldn't go to, you know, on my own. But I think that's also the very exciting part because it pushes me, it pushes my thinking. 

KINCH: Yeah, to pick up some new ideas and work in a new area.  

SEVERSON: Yeah, absolutely. And so, I kind of really think about that as being, you know, a really great opportunity for my own intellectual growth. So, I look for that, but there has to be enough of an overlap. And then, I think I look for students that I think that are willing to -- that they have some courage that there's some evidence of like some courage, like they're willing to maybe ask hard questions or questions that are maybe not conventional or they're putting things together in a new way. That they're willing to kind of put themselves out there. That have, you know -- they are curious. I want to see evidence that they're really -- that they have that curiosity because that's what's going to drive them.  

KINCH: Curiosity and courage. I mean, I can't think of two more important things because you have to be driven, right? I mean, the process itself is so difficult and so challenging, you have to have something coming from inside that allows you to kind of overcome those obstacles.  


KINCH: What do you want to see in terms of the growth of your students over the course of their time? 

SEVERSON: You know, I ultimately -- I'm trying to get them to be independent scholars. And so, I mean, I think depending on where they are when they're beginning their course will be different. But really moving them to trust their own understanding of the literature of the field of, you know, of the ideas. What are the important questions? I think that moving them towards not just accepting what other people have said, but, you know, interpreting it for themselves. And that may mean challenging, longstanding views. This kind of ties back in with Sapolsky, right? Challenging those views, like, really thinking critically. So, you know, reading things for themselves and understanding for themselves and then formulating new questions. Seeing where's the gap and there's lots of gaps. So, then what's the interesting one for me where I'm going to have that curiosity and, you know, where the graduate students can have that curiosity. 

KINCH: Yeah, and that dialectic between -- or I guess dialect is not the right word, but balance between, you know, foundational knowledge and skills, like, you know, enough to kind of ask a good question, but then asking a question that's interesting enough to open the field up. You know, that's a dynamic in every field. Obviously, it's a problem that every generation of students has to reinvent for themselves. But your field in particular, I think, is struggling with some questions about methodology and replication. That's been in the news a lot and so what kinds of issues does a graduate student sort of today need to think about in terms of this underpinning scientific questions that are being asked about the fields of psychology? And I know, you know, one category is this acronym W.E.I.R.D. This is white educated, industrialized, rich developed, right?  

SEVERSON: Western, not white.  

KINCH: Western, right. Yeah. Wow. Interesting Freudian slip there, but there's something to that, right? But it's this idea that the subjects of a lot of psychological studies are homogenous. In fact, that even though they might have the appearance of demographic diversity by age or gender, but in fact they all come from a fairly narrow class. And so, there are questions about how universal the discoveries really are on that basis, right? So, that's one of them that a lot of people know about. What are the other ones? And, and how's the field addressing this problem of replication? 

SEVERSON: Yeah. So, the W.E.I.R.D. issue is certainly a big one, and I think related to that -- and I'll talk about replication as well -- that related to that is for our measurement our measures developed also with W.E.I.R.D. samples. And then how universally can we apply those measures? And trying to understand whether our -- when we're trying to assess, kind of, what is universal for development? Then, if we're using W.E.I.R.D. measures and applying that in other cultures, are we accurately tapping into, you know, development there, you know, what's happening for -- you know, across cultures. 

KINCH: Applicable to baboons and humans. 

SEVERSON: Perhaps so. Well, actually a lot of developmental measures, a lot of studies particularly infant studies or studies with young children where they can't give us a verbal response. Then there's a lot of methods that are used both with primates and with young children. 

KINCH: I think I threw out in an email this Michael Thomasello book that I read the summer Becoming Human and the entire structure there is, right, comparing human and primate ontogeny. And they're sort of thinking about these -- what are these distinctive things that start to break off and distinguish human development from the primate?  

SEVERSON: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah, that's a big question. Like, what is -- what does it mean to be human and what's uniquely human that we don't see evidence of maybe to the same degree, or at all in, in primates. Yeah. So, yeah.  

KINCH: So, the W.E.I.R.D. And replication is a slightly different problem, right? 

SEVERSON: So. Replication is, right. So, if you just have a study with -- particularly if you have a surprising finding you really want to replicate that because it's certainly possible that you find something significant, but it’s -- but that's not really truly there. And so, replication is really key. So, there's been a lot of work, like the replication project to try to replicate, you know, studies that -- to see do they hold, you know, when you do them again exactly the same way. And part of the issue with that, why this became an issue is that there's a publication bias that, you know, if you're, if you're, you know, prior to things like replication projects, it would be like, well, that study's already been done. We're not going to publish that. 

KINCH: Right.  

SEVERSON: And, and so things, you know, wouldn't get out there. Particularly if they, well, whether they did or didn't replicate. And so there's a real concerted effort to try to replicate now and really I think also an effort to have multinational collaborations, really large studies in order to get at the question of, you know, is this something that's -- that we can say is a universal, across cultures. 

KINCH: There's a sociology of knowledge problem. It's the pressure on faculty to produce that we kind of have to rethink that a little bit at the institutional level. We have to be willing to support work that reinforces -- and in replication, obviously its ostensible goal should be to prove it wrong, right? The skepticism should be, you know, we're, we're trying to show this as this finding is incorrect, right? And unless that strong, skeptical bias is there, then you're not going to get the best science. But the flip side is you have a lot of people that are willing to commit their time and energy and lab resources to doing a study that's going to find nothing and that's tough, right? It's a hard thing to sell. So, I think that's an important message to kind of get out to the public that a lot of science is this gritty hard work that actually doesn't -- that has a negative result or shows that other work is not accurate or is just, you know, doing the grunt work of repeating this study. The base of the pyramid has to be strong in order for those important breakthrough studies to shine, right? To have meaning. 

SEVERSON: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a really important point to underscore. It's not always glamorous. Science isn’t always glamorous. But it's very flexible. This is advice I give graduate students a little jokingly that it's very flexible. You can work whatever 80 hours of the week that you want to. 

KINCH:  Yeah. Whatever's left. And with whatever's left you're sleeping and eating. 


KINCH: Fantastic. Well, we end every episode the same way. We have our quick hitters. These are either or’s, couple of threesomes in there. Morning or night person? 

SEVERSON: Morning. 

KINCH: Bitterroot or Clark Fork? 

SEVERSON: Oh, Clark Fork.  

KINCH: I should throw Blackfoot in there 

SEVERSON: Oh, then it would make it, oh… that would make it I might go Blackfoot then.  

KINCH: Yeah, okay. Sunrise or sunset? 

SEVERSON: Sunrise. 

KINCH: Yellowstone or Glacier? 

SEVERSON: Glacier.  

KINCH: Winter or summer? 

SEVERSON: I love winter, but I think I would say summer. 

KINCH: Bitterroots or Missions? And we'll throw the Pintlers in too because I know some people… 

SEVERSON: Oh, I'm going to say Bitterroots. 

KINCH: Well, this has been delightful, Rachel. Thank you so much for joining us.  

SEVERSON: Yeah. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.  

KINCH: If you like what you’ve heard, you’ve got a great production team to thank: Jordan Unger, graduate student in UMs environmental journalism, and Charles Bolte, a recent graduate of that program. You can hear their audio profiles of graduate students on SoundCloud or the Confluence website at Click on the Telling Our Story tab for podcast episodes and videos that highlight the amazing work our graduate student do. Enjoy the float!