The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year – 2020

Another year, another round of “best of” book lists. Each year, I strive to branch out in the topics I read about and diversify my knowledge. This year was filled with a particular emphasis on higher education books (comprising about 23% of my books) given that I began my post-PhD career in higher education research. I also, predictably, spent most of my time in the sciences and behavioral (social) sciences. This year was also big for memoirs, which have been a newfound favorite since 2019.

Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. (Check out my 2019 list here). Each of these was certainly a favorite, but my primary criteria for inclusion was that they were interesting – that they caused me to learn something fundamentally new or look at something common from a fresh perspective. Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2021 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial

The Adventurer’s Son was hands down my favorite book that I read this year, and a constant recommendation to literally anyone who will listen. This was one of those rare finds at the bookstore (which, incidentally, is how I found my 2019 favorite book, too!) shortly after the spring lockdown was lifted. I was browsing through the nature and wildlife section when my eye caught the cover of this book. I initially picked it up because I couldn’t believe that a paragraph of text was put on the cover of a book! But someone in marketing knew what they were doing because I didn’t hesitate to buy it after reading.

This memoir is one for your heartstrings. An Alaskan adventurer to some of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet, Professor Roman Dial reared his son to be an adventurer, too. A truly envious childhood yielded an independent and adventurous son, who eventually embarked on a solo South American wilderness trip with no predetermined end date. When communication with his son suddenly stopped, Roman hoped for the best, but was prepared for the worst. Documenting his search for his son over the ensuing years will keep you turning the pages. It’s the perfect weekend read.

Buy it here.

2. The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp

I am quixotic about the potential of higher education and its role in society. This year I have been pouring over books and research in an effort to develop actionable solutions to some of higher education’s most pressing problems as I embark in my new career. The College Dropout Scandal was the perfect mix of blunt reality combined with the encouraging documentation of universities that have truly witnessed profound improvements in their institutions to drastically improve student academic outcomes.

(Too) Many professors I know are cynical about higher education and their role as educators to help their students reach their potential. And, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Too many young adults are pushed into higher education with no clear plan, too many of them fail upon arrival, it costs way too much, and most of our universities have morphed into behemoth businesses where the customer is always right. Even so, I truly believe that we educators have an obligation to do our very best work in the classroom, and strive to re-focus our universities on providing the very best education we possibly can to each of our students. Kirp’s book will give you a boost of optimism and motivation that are desperately needed right now in higher education.

Buy it here.

3. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, by Thomas Chatterton Williams

2020 has been a significant year for so many reasons, but the resurgence of race relations at the center of cultural discussions has perhaps been the most profound. I read Self Portrait in Black and White in February as I was gathering various perspectives on race to help formulate my own thoughts pertaining to the academic debate of whether race is a social construct or biological following the publication of Human Diversity by Charles Murray.

The most enduring part of his story that has stuck with me is his experience of being “Black” in America, yet simply “American” when in France (where he currently lives). His perspective shows how central Black-white (and other) race categories are in the US, especially in our current hyper-racialized culture; but, when he travels elsewhere he is first regarded as “American” rather than “Black.” Reading Chatterton Williams’ book was refreshing, and a key book that should be included in this year’s concerted effort to amplify (diverse) Black voices in current cultural discussions.

Buy it here.

4. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life is absolutely a book that can be judged by its beautiful cover! It’s as intellectually warping as it is beautiful, and Sheldrake will certainly teach you something new. Sheldrake takes you on a fantastically fungally journey through the myriad ways that fungi form the foundation of our world.

I was truly astonished to learn how complex – and, dare I say – intelligent fungi are. Without anything that would remotely resemble what human and animal scientists would consider a functional “brain”, fungi behave in ways that cannot be easily understood in current conceptual frameworks of “intelligence”. A true intellectual trip (pun obviously intended), Entangled Life will blow you away at each new insight.

Buy it here.

5. The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, by Jonathan Zimmerman

College teaching: the thing so obviously central to our universities, yet underpaid and undervalued. I have a lot to say about college teaching, but it can be mostly summed up to: (1) it matters, and (2) it needs to be taken far more seriously than it currently is at our nations leading universities. The Amateur Hour demonstrates just how not seriously teaching has been taken since the 18th century in American Universities. As Zimmerman states, “college teaching has probably seen less change than almost any other American institutional practice” and “has languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition.”

Tradition. That word that is so prohibitive to systematic change in teaching practices, most notoriously at our research-intensive universities. Why do we bore students to death with lectures? Why not lecture! It’s how teaching has always been done, critics of reform will retort. And although those critics would not be fully wrong, they would also be ignoring mountains of research on how people learn and what constitutes effective pedagogy. The Amateur Hour is a true classic in the making showing, without uncertainty, how poor the incentive structure for teaching is at our major universities — doing not only a disservice to our students, but also to scholars that put in the work to ensure their courses are evidence-based. A required reading for anyone who is allowed in our university classrooms.

Buy it here.

Keep up with what I’m reading throughout the year by following me on Goodreads.

Applying the Evolutionary Science of Attachment Bonds

Attachment theory is one of the most enduring theoretical frameworks in psychology, spanning the areas of developmental psychology, social/personality psychology, and evolutionary psychology. Broadly, classical attachment theory, originally developed by John Bowlby, focuses on the development of attachment bonds between parents and infants, and how those early attachments influence social development throughout childhood and into adolescence, coalescing in adult romantic attachments.

During my doctoral studies I became interested in attachment utilizing an evolutionary framework after reading a classic (monster of a) paper from Dr. Marco Del Giudice. I was fascinated with questions of the functional nature of adult attachments: What purpose did pair-bonding and romantic attachments serve in adults? What was the relationship between romantic attachments and the diversity of sexual strategies in humans? In what ways are romantic attachment similar, and different, from infant attachments?

I began exploring these questions about attachment intensely, and for my comprehensive exams to advance to candidacy I wrote a novel theoretical framework for understanding the evolution and development of attachment systems. I am currently working on refining this framework to publish in a series of papers.

The first of this trilogy, The Nature of Attachment Systems, has just been accepted for publication in Social and Personality Psychology Compass. The primary thesis of this paper is that infant and adult attachments are fundamentally different in nature; that is, their evolutionary history, operation in social contexts, and functions are different. This diverges from classical attachment theory by way of proposing that what we commonly think of as “attachment” is comprised of two distinct evoled cognitive systems, rather than one as proposed by classical interpretations of attachment theory.

One hypothesis that I propose in this paper is the Mate Guarding Hypothesis of attachment, which states:

Once pair-bonding and consequent attachments are established, mate guarding ensures the optimization of resource investment for both males and females. Here, I propose that mate guarding is the primary manifestation of the romantic attachment system, whereby romantic attachment bonds are a primary motivational source underlying mate guarding behaviors. Mate guarding behavior occurs in response to threats to the pair-bonded relationship. Threats can be exogenous in origin (intrasexual competitors), or endogenous in origin (emotional detachment or disinterest of mate). Threats may be acute in nature (a present, intrasexual competitor), ongoing (chronic jealousy), or perceived (suspicion of partner’s activities). Threats to a pair-bonded relationship can thus be operationalized as endogenous or exogenous threats to the stability of the pair-bond that negatively affect optimal investment of resources into the mateship, for either partner. The romantic attachment system, then, is a suite of psychological mechanisms that primarily operate to prevent, correct, and address threats to the pair-bond most often by regulating mate guarding behavior, broadly construed.

Barbaro, in press, pp. 10-11.

This hypothesis follows from a line of empirical work that I have been leading since 2016 on the associations between attachment orientations, particularly anxiety (which is characterized by hyper-activation of the attachment system), and mate guarding outcomes (see here and here).

Essentially, what we understand to be mate guarding behaviors — that have been heavily researched by evolutionary psychologists — are a primary manifestation of the romantic attachment system, which actively monitors threats to one’s pair-bond (see figure). Why is this important? Because pair-bonded relationships are reliant on heavy resource investment from both parties. And, particularly for males, is quite divergent from the classical “promiscuous male” mating strategy that dominates the male mammalian kingdom. There is a reason that pair-bonding is rare among mammals — it’s got to be worth the time (evolutionarily speaking).

Conceptual depiction of the Mate Guarding Hypothesis of Romantic Attachment based on Barbaro, in press.

Okay, so why is any of this important? Because understanding how our mind monitors threats our romantic relationship can help us be more self-aware and understanding of our own (and our partner’s) behaviors within our relationship. Recently, Dr. Michael Bailey asked me to briefly discuss ways in which evolutionary psychology can be applied to our lives. What I shared with him (and his psychology class via video), touches on my recent attachment work, especially with regard to the mate guarding hypothesis. Below is the 12 minute clip (shared with permission).

Although I am obviously biased, I find the notion that your attachment bond and its manifestations within your relationship are strongly influenced, in part, by the relationship dynamics within that relationship context far more appealing than the still popular proposition that your early relationships with your parents set the course for your adult romantic relationships — but that’s a topic for the next paper…

History of Science: The Best Genre You’re Not Reading

I’ve been a dedicated non-fiction reader since I was an undergraduate (I have read exactly two fiction books in the past decade), but it was only a few years ago that I had discovered history of science as a genre. And I wish I had discovered it sooner. It has become my absolute favorite go to genre, combining the practical and informative knowledge that I crave while also providing a delightful and enthralling story.

Every scientist (at least, social scientists) are taught to “frame” their research and tell a “good story” with their data . But, let’s be honest, stories are not central in the day-to-day research writing. In my opinion, research publications and reports shouldn’t tell “stories” at all — they should share information and technical details. Stories, however, have their rightful place in science when we tell the story of scientific discovery; when we tell the story of how what we now know came to be. And everyone should be reading these science stories.

A recent article highlighted the utility of science history to inspire budding scientists. By telling stories of scientific discovery, we can humanize larger-than-life scientists, we can see how non-linear the path to discovery really is, and we can exploit the way our brain learns best by using a social context within which to situate hard science. Not to mention that social stories are easier and more entertaining to read.

If you want to take a dive into history of science, or if you’re just looking for some new recommendations to add to your reading pile, here are a few of my favorite history of science books.

The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter, by Paul Steinhardt

The physical sciences are ripe with exciting discoveries, mostly because the discoveries that come from these fields hold truly ground-breaking implications for how we understand the universe. The Second Kind of Impossible is probably my favorite book I’ve read over the past few years, and I’ve already featured it on another of my “best of” book lists — the book is that good! This book was an accidental discovery during a Saturday night book store run where I purchased it because it was on sale for 50% off. I had seen no promotion for it nor had heard about the discovery itself. I parked myself on my couch for a weekend and wished the book was longer so I could enjoy it more. This will surly be a top recommendation of mine for years to come.

What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, by Adam Becker

The mind-bending world of quantum physics has captivated public attention for the last century. The math is extraordinarily useful to modern life, yet physicists can’t agree on what it all means. In What is Real, Adam Becker takes you on a conflict-ridden history of the meaning of the quantum world that continues to this day. From journal commentary battles and conference scuffles, to intellectual battles between doctorate advisor and advisee, this book takes you into the lives of the most prominent physicists in the modern scientific era. Becker also does an exceptional job at explaining quantum concepts, with this being the most accessible quantum physics book I’ve read to date.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, by David Quammen

David Quammen is one of my favorite authors and really sets the bar for the history of science genre. His writing captures individuals lives with unmatched engagement. In The Tangled Tree, Quammen tells the story of how the tree of life came to be, closely following the work of Carl Woese, the scientist who radically altered what we know about life. He famously discovered the third branch of life, Archaea, by painstaking analysis and laborious techniques. The story of how our tree of life turned into a messy bush is a fascinating one, and a story that none other than Quammen could tell.

Science Fictions and the Case for Teaching Scientific Literacy

If you have been even peripherally paying attention to social science over the past decade, you may have noticed that there’s a big problem: “classic” findings from social science continually fail to replicate when a new team of researchers conduct the study. The replication crisis, especially in the field of psychology, has captured mainstream media attention since the first wide-scale replication effort was published in October 2015, with headlines stating, “Over half of psychology studies fail reproducibility test.”

In his latest book, Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth, Stuart Ritchie lays out how science – primarily the fields of psychology, medicine, and nutrition – has ended up at a place where only a minority of studies replicate, fraud is much too rampant, and metric-based incentives are driving (false) discovery. Ritchie focuses on four areas of concern: fraud, bias, negligence, and hype. Fraud, where a researcher fabricates data and experiments, is potentially the most disturbing of the four given that a too large minority of scientists erode the public’s trust in science, and can actively harm people – such as in the case of the notoriously fraudulent research by Andrew Wakefield allegedly linking vaccines to autism (vaccines don’t cause autism, please vaccinate your children).

The sections on bias and negligence have a strong focus on issues surrounding many replication issues in psychology such as questionable research practices, confirmation bias, and lack of error checking. The final section, hype, demonstrates how overblown, generalized, and sensationalized findings have also contributed to today’s problems. Uncertain, shaky, or preliminary findings are splashed across websites and social media feeds with little regard for nuance, caution, or skepticism. Those working in the field of psychology, in particular, and those who are not living under a rock or in denial of our field’s problems may not find much new information in these sections, but may very well find them, as I did, to be an extraordinary collection of the most pressing issues in modern science with interesting and relevant examples.

In the final section of his book, Ritchie tells us how we can fix science. These solutions, which largely center on ways to shift incentives to reward accuracy and rigor rather than pizzazz and quantity, are well underway in the social sciences: Open science, pre-registrations, registered reports, pre-prints, new priorities in hiring and grant awarding. These practices are actively changing the way new generations of researchers are trained, and shifting the norms of our field in a net positive direction.

Discussion of the replication crisis, particularly in the social sciences, however focuses with near exclusivity on research practices, for obvious good reasons. But, there is another area I believe scientists, and specifically academics and institutions of higher education, should also be focusing on: teaching scientific literacy. There are three specific reasons for a focus on teaching scientific literacy explicitly in the social (and hard) sciences (and with its own dedicated course, I would propose):

  1. Teaching scientific literacy aligns with the goal of de-incentivizing “hyped” findings and sensationalist claims
  2. It is a practical skill that adults can use and apply in their daily lives when browsing social media and listening to the news
  3. It is necessary for informed policy decisions and informed voter decisions

These may sound idealistic, and they probably are to an extent, but active participation by scientists and academics in teaching scientific literacy in the classroom and on social media is a goal that we can’t let slip by. Poor scientific literacy is part of the reason why there is an anti-vaxx movement, “climate change is a hoax”, misinformed policies, and wasted resources implementing ineffective (and maybe harmful) interventions. Poor scientific literacy also leads to people mindlessly click “click-bait” headlines from which they train their social media algorithms to populate their feeds with more and more misinformation.

Better scientific literacy is badly needed, yet is not actively taught. My experience in this domain is largely restricted to the field of psychology and social science more broadly, but I want to share how I integrated scientific literacy training into my courses when I was teaching to provide some examples of how academics can work toward this goal. (P.S. I miss teaching!).

The first is basic but too often overlooked: Teaching students how to read a scientific paper. Delightfully, Ritchie includes an Appendix in Science Fictions on just this topic – what a delight! Why is this important? Because students do not know how to read a science paper when they enter your classroom. Let me repeat: students do not know how to read a science paper when they enter your classroom. If they are not able to read science papers, how can you expect them to fact-check flashy headlines and news articles? They can’t. If you do one thing, teach them how to read a paper. (This is a bare-bones outline of a Scientific Literacy lecture I used in my recent Intro to Psychology course. See also the end of this lecture for demonstration of sharing the replication crisis and debunking some common “facts”).

Once they know how to read a scientific paper, you need to demonstrate and engage them with the fact-checking process and show them how limited and misleading reporting often is. In all my psychology courses I used this Psychology in the News Assignment – it was remarkably successful. Students were shocked by how limited reporting was, they learned a new skill (reading a science paper), and they saw how inaccurate reporting can be. Knowledge they will (hopefully) use when scrolling Facebook and Twitter.

Lastly, teach, reinforce, and engage students in interpreting real tables and figures. Knowledge in psychology changes fast. Teaching students “facts” is far less useful than teaching them scientific literacy skills which they can use to update their knowledge of the field after they leave your classroom. A few ways I have practiced this: My slides show the actual figure or table from a paper I am discussing, rather than a bullet point of the finding. I spend time talking through the labels, error bars, measures, and then ask them to tell me the result. (You can look through my Human Development slides for examples.

Most importantly, I think, is that I frame my class as skill-based. I do this with my Introduction to the Course lecture where I explain my goals, how I am going to achieve them, and how each aspect of the course – lecture styles, active learning, assignments, etc – connect to those goals. The result is more engaged students that walk out of the classroom with useful skills they can apply in life and other courses, rather than only “facts” that may be debunked tomorrow.

These are only examples of ways that I have worked to actively teach scientific literacy in my role as an educator. If it were my department, I would devote a whole course to scientific literacy, and in said course I would assign Ritchie’s Science Fictions as an accessible base reading for the course. Anyone interested in the replication crisis (and those who have their head in the sand about the field’s pervasive issues) should read Science Fictions. The replication crisis has brought about myriad reforms in the field of psychology. We should also ensure that we’re focusing on science education, too, as scientific literacy is much aligned with the reforms we’re already making.

How Our Evolved Psychology Set the Stage for the Humanitarian Transformation of Our Species

With the COVID pandemic continuing to rage across the world, we are witness to enormous levels of global cooperation and kindness as we all do our best to navigate the “new normal” of mask wearing, awkward social interactions, and constant uncertainty.  But why are we doing any of this? Why are millions of humans donating to relief efforts, helping vulnerable populations, and doing whatever we can to help those (strangers) around us? In his new book, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, Michael McCullough explains what makes Homo sapiens so prone to kindness amidst a selfish, selfish evolutionary world.

The Kindness of Strangers is a brilliant book for several reasons. First, McCullough has found a way to write about evolutionary psychology in a surprisingly entertaining way. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, as a professional psychologist who specializes in evolutionary perspectives on human behavior, I have become accustom to (and quite frankly, bored of) reading about the ‘basics’ of evolutionary psychology. This is not to the fault of any one particular person, but rather the result of extensive reading on the topic: there seems to be only so many different ways to describe a psychological adaptation and only so many ways to describe Darwin’s paradoxical peacock! Not here, though. McCullough successfully captured my undivided attention on his ‘foundations’ chapters to evolutionary psychology. Expert or novice, I’m confident you’ll enjoy this book cover-to-cover.

Second, he does an incredible job explaining the science of kindness. Why do we help kin, strangers, and anyone else at all? Do we need group selection or multi-level selection to explain kindness and humanitarian change (spoiler: no, we don’t!*)? He then transitions seamlessly from science to history, showcasing the ways in which humanity has accelerated kindness and reciprocity on scales never before seen in the natural world. This two-part approach to The Kindness of Strangers was an unexpected, but delightful surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of humanity’s modern transition to an enormously (successful) generous culture.

McCullough’s approach to kindness, focusing on the “why” of kindness (what are the evolved adaptations that allow for such behavior?) combined with the “how” of kindness (what are the acute events or triggers for the humanitarian revolutions that have occurred throughout our history, and how does it happen?) are reminiscent of the necessary, but oft forgotten distinction in (mainstream) psychology of proximate and ultimate explanations for human psychology and behavior. We cannot merely be satisfied with understanding how humanity became more generous and kinder – changes in laws, reactions to mass tragedy, and change of cultural norms – without understanding why such behavior occurs at an evolutionary level. Why do I help this stranger? Probably because, ultimately, the cost to me is low, the benefit to the stranger is relatively higher, and my reputation benefits!

The Kindness of Strangers is an engaging, comprehensive, and enlightening read for evolutionary experts and novices alike – a difficult feat to manage! McCullough’s primary thesis, that the humanitarian transformation that has occurred in recent human history can be understood as, or at least facilitated by, a small number of evolved psychological adaptations operating in response to several crises of suffering after the dawn of civilization, is an elegant one presented with phenomenal prose and style.

*McCullough’s chapter on (the problems with) group and multi-level selection is one of the best I’ve read. If you read only one chapter, read this one (Chapter 5, For the Love of Spock)!

Questioning the Role of Menarche Timing in Life History Models of Sexual Development

Life history models of sexual development are popular for understanding female sexual development as it relates to early experiences in the rearing environment. Broadly speaking, life history models suppose that early stressful environments will lead to accelerated maturation, manifesting as earlier timing of menarche, which subsequently leads to earlier age at first sex, and more unrestricted (and risky) sexual behavior.

Although there are subtle differences between the three primary life history developmental models (see Figure 1 for a conceptual depiction of predictions across the three models), they all have in common the prediction that menarche timing is, in part, regulated by early environmental stress, such that stress and father absence – a particular variable of interest within the literature – predict earlier menarche timing.

Figure 1. Conceptual model of the theoretical predictions derived from various life history models of development. Solid lines indicate predicted association. PA = psychosocial acceleration theory; CD = child development theory; PI = paternal investment theory.

The effect of father absence on menarche timing has been enjoying a rich discussion in recent years, with criticisms ranging from genetic confounding (which my colleagues and I outline here) to WEIRD effects not found in cross-cultural data. Other criticisms have focused on the issue of broader confounding factors such as socioeconomic status and body mass index. Although each of these criticisms and alternative explanations for menarche timing have been investigated independently in previous research, no previous study has attempted to comprehensively evaluate a broad array of proposed effects of life history antecedents on menarche timing (that are derived from life history developmental models) with a genetically informative research design.

In our recent research, we (co-authors, George Richardson, Joe Nedelec, & Hexuan Lui) sought to test a comprehensive model of theoretically relevant life history predictors on menarche timing and subsequent sexual behavior in girls using a twin subsample from Add Health. We took a two-stage approach to test the associations between father absence, specifically, and environmental stress, broadly, with age at menarche and sexual debut, and to identify potential genetic confounding of those associations.

In the first stage we tested and refined a measurement model specifying a latent environmental stress factor, and then built and tested a comprehensive structural equation model to test our life history hypotheses (see Figure 2). What is most striking about these results is what effects are not detected. There are no significant effects of environmental stress or father absence on age at menarche; only BMI is a significant predictor (a well-known predictor in the pediatrics literature.) There were, however, significant effects of early environmental stress on sexual debut, consistent with recent work in a Canadian sample.

Figure 2. Final SEM model. Only significant effects show.

In the next stage, we used univariate and multivariate behavior genetic models to identify whether significant associations between BMI and age at menarche, and between age at sexual debut and number of sexual partners and risky sexual behavior, were confounded by shared genetic covariation. Results here did not provide evidence of a nonshared environmental association (i.e., an association that survived control of genetic and shared environmental factors), suggesting the effect of BMI on age at menarche in our nongenetically informative model is likely spurious. Findings also did not provide evidence of a nonshared environmental association between age at sexual debut and risky sexual behavior. However, the association between age at sexual debut and number of sexual partners did survive control of genetic and shared environmental factors, suggesting it may reflect a causal effect of the former on the latter.

This study tested many other predictions in addition to the key findings presented above. Below in Table 1 is the tl;dr version of our primary aims and results summary.

Table 1. tl;dr summary of research aims and results.

What do all these results mean for life history models of sexual development? First, and in my view, most importantly, is that the null association between early environmental stress and father absence with menarche timing (the latest null result in a growing list) calls into question each of the three life history developmental models. Why? Because parental investment theory, psychosocial acceleration theory, and child development theory all rely on menarche timing as a key regulatory mechanism linking early environments to adolescent sexual behavior. (In our paper we discuss at great length the implications for each theory on preprint pp. 20-23).

Our behavior genetic models offer some interesting insights to life history models, too – just not for age at menarche. The evidence associated with age at sexual debut does suggest sexual behavior may be, in part, responsive to early environmental stress. Unlike age at menarche, age at sexual debut does reflect the shared environment in all the models we tested. Again, however, life history developmental models will have to reconcile the fact that the key regulatory mechanism of menarche timing is missing. Additionally, these results also do not provide evidence for my own hypothesis that the association between father absence and age at menarche is genetically confounded – because there appears to be no such association to confound!

This paper, currently under peer-review, contributes to the ongoing critical discussions in the life history literature particularly regarding developmental models, facultative adjustment, and genetic confounding. We look forward to hearing your comments!

Preprint (19 June 2020)

OSF project and pre-registration

Is (Online) Education Hackable? (Spoiler: NO)

Brief psychological and behavioral interventions are popular in education, with promises of big impacts on academic outcomes for students. However, these kinds of brief interventions nearly all suffer from the same problem: generalizability. It’s one thing to demonstrate that an intervention works in a particular class, school, or sample, it is another beast entirely to claim that an intervention is effective across education broadly.

So, is education hackable? Can we really improve student’s education outcomes with a 30-minute video or activity?

Unfortunately, probably not.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested how different behavioral science interventions fared in massive online open courses, or MOOCs – a rigorous test of generalizability with around a quarter million students involved across the world. The overall study design was iterative whereby pilot-type results for interventions were done first, followed by a year of randomly embedding the interventions in MOOCs, then they revised and registered their hypothesis for year two of randomly embedding the interventions in the MOOCs.

The key outcome metric was course completion rates, and the interventions were “plan making” (planning out their coursework at the beginning of the term), “mental contrasting with implementation intentions” (planning to overcome obstacles), “social accountability” (identifying people to check in with regularly about their course progress), and “value relevance” (write about how the course is connected with a personal important goal or value).

What was the result? That no single intervention had beneficial effects on course completion rates across courses and countries, and the effect sizes were in some cases an order of magnitude smaller than initial pilot-like studies suggested. Instead, the effects of interventions varied by country type (e.g., individualistic, developed), or whether the intervention occurred in the first year or the second year of the study. Interventions such as “plan making” only increased course engagement for the first week, but had no long-term effects. In some cases, the “value relevance” intervention had negative effects in some courses depending on country-context. Overall, the results show that noise and small, inconsistent effects that are highly context dependent are the norm in this kind of intervention work.

So, if these types of psychological-behavioral interventions are highly-context dependent, then what we need to do is identify the students that would benefit from the intervention and then deliver to them the intervention, rather than random or blanket assignment of interventions to all students. In theory this is a great solution, but one that is not easily executed.

A key context variable identified in the research was what the authors call the ‘global gap’ defined by courses in which course completion rates differ between less developed countries and more developed countries; interventions had positive effects on students in less developed countries but only if the courses had a global gap. The problem here is that the global gap index for a course is only known after the course has run, and is inconsistent across time. A predictive model the researchers developed couldn’t identify which courses would have a global gap the following year better than chance. Moreover, identifying individual students to target with interventions using machine-learning techniques did not increase course completion rates above what would be the case if interventions were randomly assigned.

The results of this massive research effort are important for educators and institutions. This research confirms what many educators and scientists know from experience: that context matters. But these results shouldn’t be touted as a “See! Context matters! We just need to individualized interventions!” because this study shows that we have no idea how to actually do that yet at scale. Yes, we need to be more intentional about educational interventions and more holistic in the ways in which we strive to improve academic outcomes for students, but saying that is the solution and actually being able to do it are two very different things. As higher education continues to move online at scale, we need to shy away from hackable, short-sighted “solutions” and focus on holistic, personalized and responsive education.

Using the Four Pillars of Learning to Drive the Impact of EdTech

Many edtech products begin as startups, and a foundational approach to think of a startup idea is the problem-solution model: identify a problem and create a product that solves that problem. This process has produced many EdTech products used in education today—e-books, flashcard apps, learning management systems, just to name a few—that focus on solving the broader problem of efficiency, or “digitizing” education.

Because of these types of products, technology-enabled and online education are expanding access to underserved and nontraditional populations—improving the lives of countless students. These early innovations are the foundation on which modern EdTech can flourish, but the EdTech of today should seek to do more than solve problems—it must continuously improve education with products that make learning more effective and enhance core learning processes.

Core learning processes are fundamental features of how our brains evolved to learn over millions of years. Contrary to the perpetual myth of individual learning styles—that some people learn better with visual information and others with verbal information, for instance—all brains learn information the same way. (What is actually variable is individual students’ interest and motivation to learn a topic). A recently published book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine. . . For Now by Stanislas Dehaene, articulates with great detail exactly how it is that humans learn. Dehaene explains that core learning processes are foundational to how all humans learn—powerful information for EdTech developers.

This post originally appeared on WGU Labs’ blog. Click here to continue reading.

Five (Very Different) Books on American Higher Education

Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.

The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp

The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.

Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.

The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.

Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough

The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.

Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan

The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).

Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s School Back to Reality, by Charles Murray

The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.

Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.

So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.

Ethnic Spaces on Campus Positively Impact Minorities, but Not Whites: What are Potential Inclusive Solutions?

A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science tests how ethnic and cultural spaces on college campuses impact perceptions, experiences, and outcomes for minority and White students. Ethnic spaces increased minority students sense of belonging, their perception of how much the university values minority students, their felt support by the university, and their reported academic engagement. For White students, however, ethnic spaces decreased their perceived support from the university and lowered their reports of future campus engagement; ethnic spaces did increase White’s perception of how much the university values minority students.


These results are a net positive for universities. As the authors suggest, ethnic spaces are one way in which universities can foster a sense of belonging for minority students on campus—and important component to closing equity gaps in academic outcomes.

Ethnic spaces on college campuses, however, are also subject to debate. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about who can use these spaces, and whether barring White students from these campus spaces is racist (it is), and whether the spaces are being used enough to justify their building cost.

Findings of this new study in SPPS shed some light on some of these controversial issues. On the one hand, ethnic spaces do positively impact minority students, but on the other hand, White students feel less supported. Additional analyses in the paper also show that the positive effects for Black and Hispanic students (the majority of the underrepresented minority sample in this research) are not dependent on actual or perceived usage of the space, “suggesting that [ethnic spaces] served as a signal of a more welcoming university context for underrepresented students” (emphasis added).

So, what are some practical insights that can be gathered from these new findings? First, creating a sense of belonging for underrepresented groups is important and can have a positive impact on those students. Higher education institutions that want to better academic outcomes for all of their students should focus on the idea of institutional belonging. Are ethnic spaces the best way to foster a sense of belonging? Maybe. In my opinion, I think that universities can both create spaces to celebrate ethnic diversity, be inclusive to all students, and be a good financial investment for the university. Finding the sweet spot of all these goals is possible.

It seems that the primary goal of ethnic centers is to give students a space to hang out, be themselves, be around like others, and hold events. For example, here is a description of ethnic spaces at Virginia Tech:

“These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.”

This is another description of ethnic spaces that were used in the SPPS study at University of Washington:

“In support of the goals of the University of Washington, the Ethnic Cultural Center promotes an inclusive and educational environment by providing programs and services which enhance the communication and exchange of multicultural perspectives and values. The Ethnic Cultural Center provides programs and a learning environment where students and student organizations collaborate, develop and implement programs while building leadership and organizational skills.”

It seems that the goal of ethnic centers should be more than to provide spaces for particular students to hang out, and more focused on supporting particular students in the academic journeys. A good example of a ethnic center that has a clear mission is the University of Utah:

“Using a pan-African lens, the Black Cultural Center seeks to counteract persistent campus-wide and global anti-blackness. The Black Cultural Center works to holistically enrich, educate, and advocate for students, faculty, and staff through Black centered programming, culturally affirming educational initiatives, and retention strategies.

This new center will enact this mission through intentional programmatic learning outcomes, envisioned to build a sense of belonging and community at the U, with the goal of increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff. Supporting academic and cultural activities, this center is designed to promote and explore Blackness, equity, justice, and other progressive social change initiatives on campus and within the larger African diasporic community. The broader public mission of the Center is marked by a commitment to community activism and collaboration.”

Ethnic centers should, like the University of Utah, be aiming to provide academic resources for underserved populations, and serve as educational resources for all students, rather than barring certain students from these spaces. Rather than ethnic spaces serving as a signal of belonging, as the research suggest, ethnic centers should aim to be mission-oriented and educationally-based for all students, and the local community.

How could ethnic spaces be inclusive to all students, while still promoting belonging for underrepresented populations? Potentially, the spaces could be educational in their focus, which would also align with the missions of universities. Such spaces could be thought of as museums of sorts, that celebrate human diversity, showcase student and faculty work in relevant areas, and motivate academic engagement within the center. The public could be charged a small admission fee (free for all university students and staff) to help support student organizations. Providing opportunity and incentive for student engagement would likely promote greater use of the centers, too.

Rather than having a separate student union-like buildings or spaces for particular groups, a potential solution could be a single ‘multicultural’ center on college campuses that could showcase and promote unity on campus, rather than exclusion. Such centers would be a place for all students to visit, learn, and engage with, and hold events, with the goal of promoting positive perceptions and belonging for all students on campus.

Research, such as this new study in SPPS, is necessary to evaluate the effects of such spaces on student outcomes. Because ethnic centers are themselves diverse across campuses, it would be useful to compare student perceptions and experiences based on key features of such centers that already exist. Do centers that have a clear educational mission like University of Utah promote a stronger sense of belonging than generic student union-like spaces like at Virginia Tech? Does a single multicultural center that celebrates all types of human diversity have positive effects for minority and White students?

Rather than being just “signals”, universities should strive to create ethnic centers that further educational goals, foster community belonging, and have positive effects on all students.