Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Life at the Uni: Daniel's Job

Dr. Shank at work in his office!

Hello all! Today's post is from Daniel, and explains what exactly his job is here in Melbourne. I'm hoping to get back to writing posts soon...trying to get a house together and prepare for a new baby has been wiping me out lately!


Hello from Daniel! Let me try to explain a little bit about my job at the University of Melbourne. First off, I am a postdoctoral research fellow. Similar to my position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, this is a temporary position (this time 3 years) where I am exclusively doing research.  So I will not be teaching any classes. The position is funded by two grants to Prof. Yoshi Kashima and colleagues from the Australian Research Council, which is the Australian counterpart to the U.S.’s National Science Foundation. Second, I am in the School of Psychological Sciences, basically a psychology department. My PhD is in Sociology, and my first postdoc was in the Department of Sociology at UAB, so it is a pretty big change to be in a psychology department. There is overlap between psychology and sociology, and that overlap contains my research interest, social psychology.

So what will I be doing? The projects I am working on both revolve around studying social dilemmas. Social dilemmas are a wide range of issues that occur when humans’ individual desires and needs depend partially on other humans to be fulfilled.  Social dilemmas can range in scale from a couple trying to decide whether to go shopping or to a movie, to a society coordinating their government’s functions and limitations.  I will be focusing on public goods dilemmas, those where there is some good or resource that needs multiple people to create or sustain it, but that is freely available to everyone. Think of the environment, parks, bridges, public museums, infrastructure, knowledge, or Wikipedia. Although most of those are public in the truest sense, there is also some that are only “public” within a domain, such as a committee coming up with a report that would benefit all in the organization, or apartment complex residents growing a garden with produce available to anyone in the complex.  In all cases, people can individually decide to not contribute the money, taxes, time, or resources to create and maintain the public good, but still benefit from it. This is called free riding, named after getting a free ride on public transportation. Yet, if no one contributes, there is no public good or it cannot be maintained. Some of the examples I mentioned above used some type of consent or coercion such as democratic taxation to solve these public goods dilemmas. Many, such as the kind I am researching, are voluntary contribution situations.

The first project I’m working on (from the one of the grants) involves considering how mobility alters contributions in publics goods dilemmas of different sizes. To do this, we use games (as in game theory), originally developed in economics. Public goods games allow for experiments of public goods dilemmas in which we can manipulation and isolate particular elements of interest. In this case, larger public goods dilemmas can lead to more contributions and cooperation but they can also undermine it, depending on the exact specifications. Yet in spite of the size, in most experimental tests, people are stuck in the social dilemma with particular others. What if one could leave one public goods game for another? We believe it will increase cooperation, but are testing whether it will increase cooperation differently for different sized public goods dilemmas. Later, we will run variations that include some communication and gossip elements, allowing people to report to others what they have experienced with particular public goods games.

The second project applies the public goods dilemma paradigm to climate change and the environment. Other researchers on this project are considering, via surveys, people’s view of utopias and dystopias and how those views incorporate (or fail to incorporate) the environment and the economy. A program has been developed (also by other researchers on the project) whereby people can interact with a simulation program that models the impact of the economy on the environment. The participant gets to choose the level of economic activity, with higher levels generating more money for the participant in the short run. The high economic activity, however, hurts the environment which subsequently hurts the economy in a negative feedback loop.  The stages of this project include modifying the information participants receive about the model, the relationship of utopic and distopic visions to behavior in the simulation and multiple player versions.

In the multiple player versions, each person’s economic activity generates profit for himself/herself, but hurts the economy resulting in decreased profitability for the economy in the longterm. In other words, it’s a public goods dilemma!  Both projects require large experiments. In the first, we must have multiple public goods games of small and large sizes to allow participants to move from one to another.  That means we will need more people than we can fit in a lab at one time (something like 10 games of 5 participants each).  So, we are developing computer programs to run these experiments on the web, linked from Amazon Mechanical Turk, where we can hire a number of participants to run our experiments at once.

On the projects are computer scientists who are doing some modeling of public goods dilemmas, social network scholars contributing theoretical insights, and several psychologists. So currently I am doing a range of activities, which includes a lot of meetings to understand what different people are working on. I am preparing for these experiments by working with a PhD student who is the programmer for the climate change project. I am going to be building on his computer programs in order to program the experiments in Amazon Turk. Also, in a coordinated effort, we are trying to design and get ethics approval for these experiments.

In conclusion, I will say that campus is nice and I’m getting to know a lot of friendly people in the department (the department is really large so it will take a while). I have gotten coffee from five different places on campus, so there are a lot more to go. The student union which is close by has a sushi place, two noodle places, a French cafĂ©, Indian food, a Japanese restaurant, a pizza place, Mexican food, kabobs, and smoothie, coffee, and dessert outlets, so that is a lot of fun.


The view from Daniel's office


  1. Very cool Daniel, interesting topic. God speed. Hope you like enjoy it there.

  2. Sorry forgot my name on that comment. Doug Burris