What did your Vacation Scholarship set out to investigate? The ability to understand other peoples’ thoughts, beliefs and emotions is crucial for everyday social functioning. In my project, I explored these abilities in older adults (aged 57-89). These abilities are called ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) skills, and can be further broken down into Cognitive Theory of Mind (which is used to understand thoughts and beliefs) and Affective Theory of Mind (which is used to understand emotions.) A recent research paper (Lecce et al., 2017) found the ability to understand the thoughts and beliefs of others (Cognitive ToM) to be related to social friendships in older adults. My research aimed to test whether understanding emotions (Affective ToM) is important for building and maintaining social relationships too.
Why is this subject important? Understanding what abilities are needed for maintaining friendships in older adults is incredibly important as this age group is particularly susceptible to loneliness. 1 million older adults in the UK report report feeling lonely either always or often (Age UK, 2015). A greater understanding will help researchers to work towards potentially identifying strategies for improving social functioning in this more vulnerable age group.
What did you uncover during your research project?Interestingly, I did not find cognitive or affective theory of mind abilities to be related to social functioning. Additionally, I found working memory abilities (a form of short-term memory used to temporarily store information while you use that information to complete a task) were related to understanding other people’s thoughts and beliefs, but not necessary for identifying the emotions they are expressing.
What have you gained from your experience as a Carnegie Vacation Scholar?This scholarship has helped me gain a much deeper understanding of what research entails, from conception of the idea, right through to writing up a report and presenting findings. Having my own project gave me much more responsibility than I have had before which allowed me to become more confident in completing tasks independently and helped me to become more self-assured when using my own initiative.
What advice would you give to future applicants?I would encourage future applicants to fully engage with every aspect of the process. Research rarely goes to plan, and I feel that I have learned so much about my own strengths and weaknesses and about the research process in general, from the obstacles I came across and the mistakes that I made during my summer vacation project.
Laura Cowie was a Carnegie Vacation Scholar in Summer 2018, supervised by Professor Louise Phillips, School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen.