Daniel Peterson, Ph.D. is a graduate of our Cognitive Psychology program in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. He is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Skidmore College.
Daniel chose Carolina for his Ph.D. program for the opportunity to work with his faculty advisor, Dr. Neil Mulligan. He says, “I chose to pursue a Ph.D. because I really loved the research experience I got as an undergraduate and wanted to explore that further. I found Neil Mulligan’s research fascinating and he proved to be a wonderful graduate advisor.” Of his time at UNC, Daniel says, “I have heard other folks talking of their graduate experience and how competitive the students were with each other. I didn’t find that to be the case at all in Chapel Hill; everyone was so incredibly supportive and friendly, and many of my cognitive peers are individuals I still consider to be close friends today.”
Choosing a Ph.D. program can be challenging and Daniel recommends researching the types of jobs that are available to someone with the degree you’re seeking. “Though it ultimately worked for me, I was woefully ignorant as to what one could do with my degree when I started graduate school – I assumed everyone became a researcher at an R1 institution,” shares Daniel. “For students currently pursuing a Ph.D., I would simply say it is important to be open to careers that are other than those you were initially considering when applying to graduate school. I enrolled at UNC thinking I would end up in a research-centric career. During the course of my graduate work, however, I found that I really loved teaching and subsequently sought out jobs that allowed me to do both.”
At Skidmore College, Daniel is able to pursue his love of both research and teaching. He conducts applied and theoretical research on human memory. Theoretically, he is specifically interested in what happens when humans recall information. Research points to the idea that retrieval facilitates subsequent retrieval; i.e., it is easier to recall something you’ve already recalled – Daniel is trying to understand why that is the case. In applied research, he is exploring multiple lines of research, including the relationship between confidence and accuracy in eyewitness memory. “When a witness tells you, ‘I’m positive that’s the guy, how much weight should we place in that level of confidence? An interesting intersection between cognitive psychology and the criminal justice system concerns eyewitness memory,” Daniel explains. “In my lab, we’re currently in the midst of data collection looking at facial recognition memory under varying levels of physiological stress.” In his experiment, participants are presented a series of faces to learn on a computer screen, one at a time. During this presentation, participants have their non-dominant hand placed in a vessel of water. For participants in the control condition, the water is 70 degrees, while for those in the stress condition, it is an extremely uncomfortable 32 degrees. After a brief delay, they are presented with a much larger set of faces -some already presented, some new. While making an old/new decision about each face, participants must quantify their confidence for that decision. Daniel says, “We know that physiological stress impairs memory. What we’re interested in is whether these participants will have enough metacognitive awareness of this to appropriately scale back their confidence for the old/new decisions.”
In addition to his research, Daniel teaches Introduction to Psychology, Statistics, Research Methods, Human Memory, Eyewitness Memory, Psychology and Law, and Cognitive Psychology. “I love lots of things about teaching,” Daniel shares. “But if I had to pick one, it is the immediacy of reinforcement. In research, you put an awful lot of work into submitting a manuscript and it can take months before it is accepted for publication. In teaching, I can sit down with a student and in 10 minutes, get them from hopelessly confused to mastering a concept. Seeing that light go off in a student’s head who’s been struggling – it is incredibly rewarding.”