"Wholesome Agent of Chaos": Psychology Professor Merel Keijsers

Born and raised in Amsterdam, psychology professor Merel Keijsers recently joined JCU’s faculty. She holds an M.A. in Statistics and another in Social Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Social Robotics. Professor Keijsers teaches General Psychology and Introduction to Statistical Analyses of Psychological Data.

Merel Keijsers

Merel Keijsers

Tell us about your background.
I left Amsterdam for my studies and haven’t lived there for almost eight years now but it still feels like home every time I return. I did my undergraduate degree at Utrecht University, but in between my bachelor’s and master’s I lived in South India for half a year, where I worked with street children. I then went on to do my Ph.D. in New Zealand.

What brought you to JCU?
I feel like I just got very, very lucky. I was about to wrap up my Ph.D. and had to start applying for a job, and JCU was one of the first applications I sent out. I love the fact that JCU is as small-scale as it is, since my first year of undergraduate psychology had about 700 students and I remember feeling so lost in the crowd. I honestly think I didn’t start properly learning until my master’s degrees when the class size shrunk to about 15 and we could actually engage with our lecturers and our peers.

You hold an M.A. in Statistics, one in Social Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Social Robotics. What made you decide to combine these fields?
To be completely honest, that combination isn’t so much the result of conscious planning as just me being curious and having the attention span of a goldfish. I had started a bachelor’s degree thinking that I’d study to become a child therapist, but soon after being introduced to these topics I realized I disliked both child psychology and psychopathology, so I majored in social psychology instead, which I absolutely loved. Continuing on that path seemed the obvious choice but I had also had this weird love-hate relationship with statistics, so halfway through the master’s program, I asked if it would be possible to combine the degrees. Similarly, after finishing my master’s I was looking for a Ph.D. topic and stumbled upon the one on robot bullying, which sounded fascinating.

Of course, these aren’t a completely random draw – psychology needs solid statistics for its research, and the field of robotics is getting increasingly aware of its need for social scientists because people engage with robots as if they were social agents. But if you had asked me what my path in academia would look like ten years ago, this would not have been on my list of guesses. And even after deciding that I wanted to do a stats master’s, or a Ph.D. in robotics, my initial expectation was very different from what those experiences have turned out to be.

Your Ph.D. project focused on the psychological mechanisms behind people bullying robots. Can you tell us more about your research and your findings? How did you become interested in robotics?
The first thing that people need to realize is that everyone,  on a very basic and intuitive level, approaches robots as social agents. This is not something that can be ignored. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or what part of the world you’re from, or how much experience you have interacting with or researching, or building robots. There is something in the way that robots interact with us that signals “social being,” and while we may try to change our initial response, we can’t “cancel” this intuitive recognition. This creates quite an interesting dissonance because rationally, we know they’re just machines. Furthermore, this recognition is only to some extent related to what a robot looks like. For instance, WALL●E from the Pixar movie looked nothing like a human, but still had an amazing social presence to it because of its behavior.

For my Ph.D., I went on to test the hypothesis that if robots are seen as social agents, then our aggression towards them should follow the same psychological patterns as aggression towards humans. Before hurting another human, we have to dehumanize them; in order to preserve a positive self-image, we have to twist our perception of the other as somehow less capable of feeling pain or less deserving of protection from pain. Of course for robots this process makes no logical sense – we have to perceive them as somewhat human in order to warrant bullying behavior (because who would bully something that can’t think or feel, e.g. a desk or a lamppost) but at the same time they have to not be able to think and feel or we’ll feel bad about being mean to them. But in a way, this is what my findings so far suggest. A robot needs to have a certain level of human-likeness in order to be abused, but once it attains this “close enough to be bullied” standard, the people who attributed the least emotional and cognitive qualities to it tended to be the ones who got most aggressive.

What is your teaching philosophy?
One of my friends describes me as a “wholesome agent of chaos” and I think that is kind of how my teaching goes at the moment. I like science, and I like sharing my enthusiasm about science, Overall, I think the best way to teach is by making people curious – if not about the topic at hand, then at least about the other topics that they could learn more about once they have a full grasp of the topic at hand.

What is your impression of JCU so far?
I really like the community. It’s easier to teach to smaller groups, and for the students, it’s easier to reach out if they feel like they sort of know their professor (rather than being one face in a group of 700).

What would you like students to take away from your classes?
I’d like my students to leave with more curiosity than they started out with. I know statistics has a reputation for being boring and/or confusing people half to death, which is a shame as it also allows us to find patterns in the absolute chaos that is human behavior and the mind. In that sense, it’s not so much the statistics themselves that I think are fascinating but more the potential that they give us as researchers. So maybe thinking that the statistics class is the most challenging part of the Psychological Science major isn’t too bad, as long as it’s seen as a necessary evil rather than just evil.

What are your upcoming projects?
First, surviving my first semester. It has been amazing but also very intense, with lots of learning moments. From next semester on, I want to get back to my research, further expanding on mind attribution to robots. At my previous university, I taught some classes on the psychology behind and the effects of gaming, and there has been some talk of looking into a course on human-interface technology where human-robot interaction, gaming, VR, and social media all come together, which I believe would be interesting.