Thoughts on Theses: Mary Gum ’24

Mary Gum ’24 is a senior double majoring in psychology and anthropology. Her thesis explores metacognitive trust in four- and five-year-old children.

Thoughts on Theses: Mary Gum ’24
In addition to her thesis work, Mary is also a member of the women's lacrosse team. Photo courtesy of Mary Gum 24.

Q: First off, tell me a little bit about yourself.

A: I’m a senior now. I am originally from Dallas, Texas. I am a psychology and anthropology major. And I guess I always knew coming in I wanted to go into psychology. I stumbled into anthropology and was like, “Oh, I guess I took enough courses to major in this now.”

Q: What is your thesis on?

A: I started working in [Associate Professor of Psychology] [Carrie] Palmquist’s developmental lab spring of my junior year after going abroad. They were starting a new study then, and so I got to work [on] developing the study. And then, after my junior year, [I] talked to Palmquist about it and was like, “I kind of want to just take this on as my own and do a whole project on it.” So basically, my thesis is looking at how children developed this information-seeking strategy from different sources of information. It’s a field called selective trust. So how do children selectively choose who they’re going to trust to learn from?

We didn’t go in with a super straight hypothesis of like, “We think X is going to happen,” but there’s a lot of work looking at the different ways that children trust and … cues they rely on. There [are] studies that have looked at, okay, you show kids these certain facial appearances, and certain faces, kids choose to trust over others [that] … look more trustworthy or competent. And then when you give kids someone who’s behaving really nice or behaving really competently, they’ll say, “Oh, I want to choose that person in the future.” To learn from and give kind of strict preferences at two years old. Super early, kids start to develop this ability and they just get better at discerning who’s the better informant as they get older.

That was just a lot of background to get to what my product is, but so then, what we wanted to do was, [say to] the kid like, “Here’s what this person looks like, and here’s how they behave.” They tend to rely on behavior more, they care more about that. But what if we just said, “Here’s two different people, and this new object” — we call this an epistemic task, it’s basically based on knowledge — what are they going to know about this new object?

We gave them three choices of things that they can pick, and they could pick all of them or just a couple of them. We gave them their appearance, an epistemic cue — so knowledge-based, like, what do they know about other objects? And then we had a social cue, so like, how do they play with their friends? It was a nice measure to see what kids care about. Should I go into results now?

Q: If you’d like, just keep going!

A: Yeah. So for adults, we are very on task and we’re like, okay, epistemic task. I need to have an epistemic cue — who cares what they look like? I just need to know if they’ll know what this new thing is. Kids don’t work that way at all. They don’t value really any of the cues more than others; they tend to pick appearance more consistently. So in a lot of the trials, they were picking appearance, but they definitely don’t value epistemic for the epistemic task.

But we actually found these really interesting ways that they seek information. We found three different categories of kids in the way that they sought information. And they fell into these categories based on these individual differences that we measured. Some kids always want just one piece of information. So on every trial, they would say, just give me guidance, I only want to know their appearance. And then on the next trial, they would pick appearance again or maybe they would say just give me the epistemic cue, I only want to know one. Some kids really can only handle one piece of information at a time. And we found that these kids tend to be younger [and have a] lower theory of mind. We have this measure. It’s kind of like your curiosity scale. Basically, it’s called need for cognition and for the need for cognition, there’s these questions that are read on a scale, but it’s like, “Do you always want to get all your homework done? Do you always want to have all the answers to all the questions that your teacher asks you.” Basically it’s asking “Do you want to conquer information? Do you want to conquer all these tasks?” And the kids that scored really low on that ended up in … the P1 categories — like picking one cue. Then we found other kids who always pick three cues. Every single trial, they always want to know all the information … And then the last category we found was our older kids. We had kids four- and five-years-old. Kids in the older, five range would switch up their strength. Sometimes they’d want one piece of information, sometimes they want two, sometimes they want three. So that’s what we found, and we were very surprised by it. We didn’t expect that at all. But there are these three categories. And I think one of the most interesting parts of it is that regardless of your category, all kids were pretty much equally good at this task. So it didn’t matter if you were only looking at one piece of information or getting all three pieces of information, but across the board, kids could be successful regardless of which strategy you choose.

Q: That’s so interesting. Have you thought at all about the applications of this study and how you can use it in education?

A: Yeah — the selective trust field [is] super interesting. It’s really just thinking about these everyday decisions of how kids learn. So we think when we learn we have all this past experience, like, “Oh, I can think back to a time similar or something else, I can compare it to things.” But a three-year-old has barely any life experience that they’ve lived so far, so the way that they’re learning and adjusting to the world and building models and new paradigms for their future learning is really based on other people telling them stuff. So I think a really big application of this is: how do we understand or start to learn who they are listening to? Who are they trusting around them to give them their information? How do we help kids in the classroom learn from better sources? How do we teach them to be more attuned to someone who’s been smart in the past and say, “Oh, that probably is an indication that you want to learn from this person more than someone who is not behaving in a trustworthy way.”

Q: How is it actually conducting the studies themselves and interacting with these kids?

A: It’s super fun. We recruit from a lot of local preschools. When I joined the lab, they [had] this cool system where they sent out general consents to the parents of the preschool, basically saying “We are a developmental lab, we’ve run studies looking at all sorts of different things. We do a lot of stuff with cognition,” and the parent can just consent to say, “That sounds really cool, and I give you permission to run my kid on studies in your lab.” We just go out on trips to preschools and any kids who have their parents sent it back with the consent form, we can run them at the preschool. For my study, it was a [two-part] study, so we ran that initial selective trust task, and then on the second visit, we’d run the individual measures: so we’d run the need for cognition skills, theory of mind, those things. And they’re kids, so they do funny things when you’re running them. But I think a really key thing when you’re designing a developmental study is how do you make it entertaining? You know, how do you make sure that the kids [are] engaged and motivated to pay attention to the study? We made a PowerPoint on a laptop, and you just have the kid sit next to you as you run through the task and be like “Okay, here’s the novel object and the two characters that we’re gonna choose how we trust them,” and that kind of thing.

Q: What do you think you’ve learned the most? Or that you’ve learned the most that could apply post-graduation?

A: Yeah – it’s coming so soon. So I want to obviously go into psychology, and I think after coming to college, I got super interested in the research side of things, in addition to the hands-on work of therapy. Postgrad, I would like to get my Ph.D. in clinical psych[ology]. But first, I need to get more research experience. So I’m trying to get a two-year post-bacc[alaureate] job. I’m looking to go back home for a little bit before applying to grad school. Like I tell any prospective person coming to Amherst, I think the hands-on research experience is absolutely invaluable. We just went with Professor Palmquist to a psych[ology] conference over spring break to present our theses at a poster presentation — and everyone there was like, “You’re getting to do this as an undergrad? That’s crazy!” Usually, you have a graduate student who’s heading up the research work and really being in charge of all the little underlying [undergraduate resident assistant]s. I think it’s really cool in this case to be kind of the big grad[uate] student. You really get to own your own work — understanding how to design a study.

In so many of our classes we work on like, “Okay, let’s design a hypothetical study that we might hypothetically run.” But I think it’s really cool to design a study and then run it and see what are the little things that you don’t think about when you’re designing the study and a lot of things that I didn’t think about. [For example,] I definitely want to be working with kids in the future too, but how do you keep them engaged? How do you make sure they’re not just nodding off and not motivated at all to answer the questions? Especially in something with cognition, you need them [to pay] attention, you want their brains to be working hard, to be successful at the task, to see their capacity for doing the task. So yeah, making sure that they’re engaged, how you make sure you have equal representation of different ages of kids, demographics, that kind of thing. And then I think just the thesis experience in general — learning how do I write a 20-to-25 page introduction, how do you organize your thoughts in a way that makes sense logically and will flow and that kind of thing. In that kind of thing, I see direct mapping onto the future. Yeah, and it’s been really awesome to have hands-on experience of what  [it is] like running a four-year-old on a cognitive thing, you know, and how do you make sure that you’re staying reliable throughout, how are you measuring the same things, learning how you stick to your script and say the right keywords that we emphasize for the script. What do you do when a kid does something crazy when you’re running and how do you recover from that and keep going and make sure you can use that data?

Q: Are there any other things you found challenging? Not only within the study, but also within trying to balance that and other extracurriculars?

A: Definitely, especially with spring [lacrosse] in-season, it’s definitely much more to balance than in the fall. I think something that I’ve noticed talking to other thesis students that has been super helpful for me is that we, in Professor Palmquist lab, stay over the summer to do data collection, so you’re just collecting data for the kids all summer long. And I find that to be super helpful. The more time that we could have to do that, the better. We could on a Wednesday go to a children’s event during the day when we might have been in class in the school year to try and get people to sign up for the study. So that was definitely a big bonus to be here over the summer and just get to work on my thesis and getting the data that I needed to set me up to start writing in the fall. I think just time management-wise, to have to learn when can you really sit down and write and flush something out. Because I think for a lot of other classes, just as an undergrad[uate], you have to have good time management to get things done. But when you have this huge, massive project, I think it’s super helpful to find eight hours to sit down and just work as opposed to like “Okay, [I] can work on something for an hour, put it aside, come back for an hour.” So I think that’s what’s been probably the most challenging is just finding big chunks of my schedule that I can just completely reserve for the thesis work and nothing else because it is hard to work on it for a little bit, put away, work on a little bit.

Q: Is there any other wisdom that you’d give to people looking to try a thesis or do research in that way?

A: Especially if you’re wanting to go onto grad[uate] school or any kind of other further education, I think it’s an amazing experience to have a professor guiding you through the process and doing baby steps of like, “Okay, here’s how you write this introduction. Here’s how you write this section, or here’s how you design a study and here’s how you implement it.” I think all those things are super, super amazing. So I think anyone who’s thinking about a thesis, talk to people about it and definitely pursue it more because yeah, I think it’s been a really, really amazing experience. And I will say, finding something that’s interesting to you, I think that’s what everyone says, but also super important because although I adore my thesis and I love the work that I’ve gone to, I love presenting about it … oh my gosh, I’m so ready to turn that in. I’ve been writing this for almost a year now. By the end you’ll be going a little bit crazy just wanting to get it off your plate and get it done and be ready to just present it and be this beautiful finished piece of work and not still in progress. I think just talking to as many professors as you can for potential advisors and learning if their style of mentoring would fit for you. If you’re someone who needs a lot of structure and deadlines, I know that that varies a lot advisor by advisor, so really finding someone who matches with your style and your writing style.

Q: It seems like you’re very passionate and it’s evident in the way that you’re talking about all this. Who do you feel has supported you the most throughout this process in addition to your advisor?

A: Yeah, so definitely number one my advisor because she helped me design it. She’s the one like day-to-day going through the data and being like, “What do we make sense of all of this? What does it mean?” and also has been probably my biggest cheerleader being like, “You got it! Keep writing! We’re almost there!” I think also secondarily, all the [research assistant]s who worked in the lab over the summer. I had a SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] student Vaughn [Armour ’25] who was assigned-ish to my project to help me with it — and just really going through the data together over the summer and running kids. And I think just anyone who’s worked in the lab, in the last fall and spring has helped me run a bunch of kids, code the videos, all the nitty-gritty work that just takes a lot of time when running a lab. Yeah, so I’d say definitely them and then [Science Center Programs Coordinator] Sarah [Buhl] too with helping track down that last four-year-old kid. We’d joke over the summer that we’re like “in search of a four-year-old” — like this sounds terrible! It sounds so creepy! But we just need one more four-year-old boy to run [to] get our numbers for the study. So yeah, so they’ve all helped a lot tracking down kids, finding them, and running them.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to add? Any questions that you wished you’d been asked?

A: I would just encourage anyone who’s out there, junior or sophomore, who’s thinking about a thesis — maybe it feels really daunting, but it’s a really awesome process. And I think what has been my experience, as I’m sure is a lot of other people’s, like professors at Amherst are super, super awesome, you know, and there’s so much opportunity for just one-on-one work. And so, I think it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that’s unique to Amherst … getting to do it as an undergrad[uate] is really awesome. And you also only have to take two classes in the spring too which really helps. If you can find something that you’re really interested in and you think will be really fun — anyone should go for it.