This week's Featured Fellow is Rakefet Ackerman, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the Technion, and co-organizer of our Research Group, "Meta Reasoning: Concepts, Open Issues and Methodology". We spoke to Rakefet about meta-reasoning, leaving hi-tech, and the dangers of digital technology…
What research are you working on during your time at the IIAS?
The Meta-Reasoning Research Group has 11 researchers from different countries, and we are all studying the mental processes underlying reasoning from diverse perspectives, including cognitive, social, and educational psychology, as well as philosophy. Meta-Reasoning research is nascent, and we are aiming to expand and enrich this research domain by raising novel research questions and adding new perspectives.
How would you define 'reasoning', and what is ‘meta-reasoning’?
Reasoning is about drawing inferences or conclusions that go beyond the given information. It includes logic challenges, problem-solving, and decision making. For instance, a doctor who is engaged in diagnosis has to take the described symptoms and the already available test results, and decide whether and how to act. The information processing itself is the reasoning part. The meta-reasoning part of the process is the assessment of whether the available information is solid enough to make a diagnosis, or if additional tests are required for distinguishing between several alternative diagnoses. It is the subjective assessment of the completeness or reliability of the information that is at the core of the domain our group is studying. This is what guides people in their decisions on how to act, and thus is very important. Any bias in this assessment will misguide following decisions. In my own research I try to identify situations which tend to be particularly misleading and lead to non-optimal decisions, premature decisions, or waste of long time without advancing the chance to find the correct solution to the problem at hand. In my research typically I use riddles of various types to demonstrate how people cope with reasoning challenges.
How did you first get involved in this area of research?
My Ph.D. research dealt with answering knowledge questions based on memory retrieval. Already then, I focused on the role of confidence in the correctness of retrieved information when phrasing answers in social contexts (e.g., a friend asking a question about a past event). In my postdoc, I extended this research into similar confidence-guided processes in problem-solving. Reading the reasoning literature, the overarching domain including problem-solving, I discovered a huge gap in research into confidence as a guide for people's reasoning behaviour. Then I came across a paper by Prof. Valerie Thompson from Canada who addressed this very same gap in the literature. I got in touch with her, and since then we have worked together to establish the Meta-Reasoning research domain and bring in more and more researchers, including our current group members at the IIAS.
Can you share an interesting finding that you have uncovered in your research?
I have an extended line of research with several colleagues dealing with performing cognitive tasks on screen vs. on paper. Participants received identical tasks, learned texts or solved problems, either on computers or printed on paper. Overall, we found robust screen inferiority across tasks and populations. Screen inferiority means not only lower scores in the task, but also larger overconfidence and less effective time management on screens than on paper.
Moreover, we conducted a meta-analysis, which integrated research published from 2000-2017 from many labs around the world, using a diversity of methods and populations. In this large-scale integrative analysis, we found robust reduced success when performing the tasks on digital devices compared to performing the same tasks on paper. This was consistently the case across age groups, including children and young adults who were born as "digital natives". We also found that this screen inferiority did not lessen with technological advances and the population acquiring digital-oriented habits, but actually increased along the examined years. This finding is highly worrisome, as it might suggest that younger generations do not develop or do not apply effective thinking strategies when working in digital environments, despite their daily use.
Were you always interested in going into academia?
No – I was sure that my career would be in hi-tech. I studied Computer Science at university, but at the time it was not offered as a major. I didn't want to study Maths as most my peers did, and chose to study Psychology as my major just because it was interesting, and I had no intention to use it for work. I worked in software companies for many years, leading large software development teams. However, I reached a point where I felt that the state-of-the-art data management tools of that time were not satisfactory. I decided to learn more about human knowledge management, in an effort to improve computerized data management. I applied for a graduate program in Cognitive Psychology to delve into human knowledge management. I was already 35 years old with three children when I started graduate school. During my studies I learned that scientists know little about human knowledge management. This led me to stay in the academia for better understanding how these processes function, the sources for biases, and how to improve human thinking.
How has your experience been so far at the IIAS?
Fantastic. This is a dream come true. It is an unimaginable opportunity to devote the time to research with wonderful team members, who are totally devoted to develop the Meta-Reasoning nascent domain. I sit here in my office, surrounded by my colleagues from all around the world. We work a lot as a group and also develop research agenda in small teams. Our group collaborative thinking certainly should not end when our group activity at the IIAS ends. We already have plans for how to continue this group momentum after getting back to our home institutes.
What's your favourite spot in Jerusalem?
The Jerusalem Forest on Mount Herzl.
Do you have any hobbies outside of your research?
I do quite a lot of sports: running, mountain biking, hiking, and yoga.
Lastly, give us a book recommendation:
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It tells the story of three generations of women living in China and the challenges they face. It spans a hundred years, starting at the end of the 19th century, when China, and the world in general, went through a dramatic cultural revolution. The story interweaves the personal experiences of these women with the historical events and political changes at the time, such as the Chinese experience of the two world wars, and its interactions with the changing western world.