Do not take it at the face value

How many faces do I encounter during my daily commute to the lab? My mechanistic estimate tells me perhaps few hundred. But how many of those faces stick in my mind? For how long do I look at each one? As I was sitting behind my desk and trying to remember some of those faces, I realised that I have no clue. I decided to pay more attention the next day.

This morning, in the train station, my mission was to pay attention to as many faces as I could. I even took off my giant headphone, which usually signals to every passerby: I am not in this world, do not approach me. Walking on the platform, I gently paused on some twenty faces. Many more faces were recognisable in the background, which flashed and then faded away in a blink. A few minutes later, I tried to remember those faces that caught my attention. To my own disappointment, only one face was registered: the lady in her thirties with a round face, dark hair and dark eyes, eating a piece of brownie.

In the new episode of the Voice of the Utrecht Young Academy podcast I interviewed Ron Dotsch. He is a psychologist that has studied human perception of others' faces for more than a decade. For his research, he heavily uses technologies such as virtual reality and computer-generated modelling. He tells me how we adjust our interaction with people based on less than a second of looking at their faces. When meeting strangers, we tend to infer their personalities, such as trustworthiness, sexual orientation, or political views, based on a very short glance. He also tells me that most of these inferences are wrong. Research shows that for guessing the political orientation correctly, seeing one's face does not help any more than knowing age, skin colour, and gender. In the first part of the podcast, Ron passionately explains to me how technology enabled him to study human perception and what are his last findings.

Ron is not engaged with this research anymore. Last summer he resigned from his tenured university position as an associate professor of behavioural psychology. He left academia to work in a company. I curiously wanted to know why.

It is no news that the academic life is not like the fairy tale that is usually pictured. The increasing work pressure made headlines again recently, when faculty members at the university of Amsterdam started a petition, #WOinactie, demanding more budget for hiring university teachers to balance the increasing student population and teaching hours. The fierce competition for obtaining funding for research just adds to this pressure. The enforced competition for scarce  resources has been criticised based on ethical and practical grounds and its inefficiency. De Groene Amsterdammer is publishing one article every week about the struggling academia and stories that are told are not pretty. The situation of competing for research grants has gone so sour that NWO has decided to take measures for reducing the application pressure. To put this latest development into perspective, not so long ago, this organisation was refuting the above-mentioned criticism as "not even wrong".

Despite these grim circumstances, pursuing an academic career is still highest in the wish-list of graduate students, even though they know their chances are meagre. To take just one example, A recent single job opening in our department attracted more than one hundred applications.

Having a university position brings with it many privileges. It is fulfilling and flexible. Not the least, it gives someone like me the opportunity of making podcasts (co-sponsored by a very giving family permitting me to disappear behind my desk for full weekends) from interviewing a group of very nice and smart people.

Ron has experience both making it into the system and breaking away from it. I wanted to know why and I could not read it from his face. Hear his reasons in the second half of this podcast episode.

This is the third episode of this podcast series from the Utrecht Young Academy. In the first episode, Elaine Mak talks about the influence of new public management on the judiciary system and how she decided to study law. In the second episode Lars Tummers talks about job autonomy, his research on policy alienation, and his vision on open science.


You can also find all episodes of the Voice of UYA on Soundcloud, Stitcher, and iTunes.