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The PhD: An overview of 4 years of research

As some of you may know, I am (still) a PhD student. I decided to pursue a PhD in communication science after finishing my Master’s degree in early 2013. I plan on finishing my dissertation this year and defending it early next year (#goals). But what have I been doing for the past four years? Curious? Keep reading…

For those of you unfamiliar with doing a PhD, it consist of carrying out a number of studies in line with a general research question in a specific field (in my case, communication science). You either write a research proposal and get funding for it, or you apply for a specific position where the proposal is already written. I did the latter – I applied for a position at the university where I’m currently at; mainly because I liked the proposal so much. It was about the formation of friendships/relationships in computer-mediated communication (CMC) in comparison to face-to-face (FTF) communication. Which media do people prefer when getting to know someone? Which medium is most effective for the expression of emotion, affection and the development of attraction? That’s what the proposal was about (in a nutshell).

I was hired and started the PhD in early 2013. My project is a four-year trajectory where I am supposed to independently carry out four studies, under the supervision of two assistant professors and one full professor (my promoter). Up until this day I have had weekly meetings with them to discuss my research, writing, and/or any other issues. They have been really amazing in guiding me to the (almost) end of my project. I couldn’t have asked for better supervisors.

So I carried out four studies. Here’s what I did.

1. An analysis of non-verbal communication

My first study had a rather simple design. It was an experiment where I asked two unacquainted people to get to know each other with a short, 12-minute conversation. I divided my sample up into two groups: one half communicated FTF and the other half via a videoconferencing system which allows for eye-contact (called an Eye-Catcher, pretty cool). After that conversation each participant filled out a survey with questions about their interaction partner. What I was most interested in was how much they liked each other.

The conversations were recorded and analyzed. I coded their nonverbal behavior (so how often they smiled, nodded, leaned forward, gazed at each other and also how fast and loud they spoke) to determine whether people in the FTF condition showed different nonverbal behavior compared to people in the videoconferencing condition. The answer to this question was: yes, they did. I won’t go into all the findings, but we concluded that in videoconferencing people showed specific nonverbal behavior which indicated they tried to decrease the distance between them and their interaction partners (e.g., speaking faster and louder, leaning forward more frequently). In sum: people realized they were in a mediated condition and felt they needed to compensate for the lack of physical presence.

Unfortunately I did not find much effect of these nonverbal behaviors on how much people liked each other; I found that people who averted their gaze more often and spoke faster were viewed as more likeable, but these effects were small.

2. Unique aspects of (mediated) interactions

After my first study I decided I wanted to delve deeper into the differences between FTF communication and mediated (CMC) interactions. What’s the difference? Is there even a difference and if so, what causes this difference? In which communication condition do people like each other most and why?

I conducted another experiment, with the same task as in study 1. This time, however, I had four conditions. A FTF condition, a FTF condition where participants couldn’t see each other (I hung up a sheet in a room so interactants could not see each other), a videoconferencing condition and a videoconferencing condition with the camera turned off (so people could only hear each other). In doing so I isolated the specific aspects that make (mediated) interactions unique: the aspect of being able to see each other, hear each other and being in the same room.

What I found was that people who communicated in the same room (with or without a sheet separating them) liked each other more, because they felt the other person was more ‘present’ to them. I also found that people who could see each other liked each other more because they felt identifiable to the other person. Both being able to see each other and being in the same room led to more liking. However, a combination of those 2 aspects (visible x in the same room, so FTF) led to less liking. I don’t yet have an explanation for that finding.

This study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior and you can find it here.

3. Media choice

My third study was an online experiment with a survey. In short, I designed a number of short scenarios (or vignettes) where I asked participants to imagine a certain situation. They were asked to imagine they wanted to share something with someone and asked with medium they preferred and why. I wanted to see which factors determine people’s media choice. When do we choose one medium over another and why?

FTF was found to be the most preferred way of communicating, followed by the phone call, WhatsApp and finally Skype (nobody ever uses Skype unless it’s long distance). I also found that medium choice largely depends on who you’re talking to and whether or not the conversation is highly personal or intimate. I found that people prefer WhatsApp to communicate with close friends and family, and the phone for people they don’t know very well. I also found that people prefer the phone for intimate messages and WhatsApp for superficial, non-intimate messages. There were a lot more findings, but too much to write down here. I’ll let you know when it’s published!

4. Speed-dating experiment

My final study was also my most fun study. I conducted a speed-dating experiment at the university with single students who voluntarily signed up. They had three dates with three people of the opposite sex in three conditions: FTF, Skype and the Eye-Catcher, which is basically like Skype but with eye-contact because of the location of the camera (which is behind the screen).

Like in my first study, I analyzed the content of the interactions, but this time I didn’t analyze nonverbal behavior; I looked at verbal behavior. What did they talk about? Were the conversations intimate? Did they ask a lot of questions? Self-disclosure (revealing personal information) and question asking are common strategies people use when getting to know each other. I was mostly interested in the effect of eye-contact. Studies show the importance of eye-contact in affection and the development of attraction, so did the possibility for eye-contact impact what people talked about?

Yes, it did! I found that people revealed more personal information and more intimate information about themselves when there was eye-contact (this could be both FTF or in the Eye-Cather condition). In contrast, people asked fewer direct questions and these questions were also less intimate compared to the condition without eye-contact (Skype). I’m not sure yet why this is.

That’s it!

So that’s it: in a nutshell (or: a blogpost) what I’ve been up to for the past four years. Four studies, mostly experimental and many interesting findings. I am still writing it all down and I will hopefully finish my dissertation before the summer. Although the thought of standing on a stage in front of a (very serious) committee who will grill me for 45 minutes about my research is terrifying (also known as the PhD defense), it is also really, really exciting. I can’t wait!

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