Threat Processing and Implicit Evaluations of Police Officers

Vincenzo Olivett, Neuroscience, 2020

Thesis advisor: Professor Luis Schettino

How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?

In the fall semester of my junior year, I approached Professor Schettino with a research question that I thought of during one of his lectures, which he allowed me to work on in the form of an independent study.  Eventually, this project evolved into my thesis.  Professor Angela Bell is my academic advisor, and she’s an expert in the field that my thesis overlaps with, so she was super helpful with the development of my thesis topic even before I began to put together a committee.  Right around the time that I was working on the independent study that led to my thesis, I took a philosophy seminar with Professor Megan Masto.  I really enjoyed the course, and briefly discussed my research with Professor Masto during office hours, and she eventually agreed to be my outside reader.

When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic? How did you develop your research question?

The question, or perhaps it was more of an unrefined inkling, originally surfaced during a class discussion.  We were talking about psychology and the law, and I remember I was angry about how a particular body of social psychology work was being interpreted legally.  I thought this interpretation perpetuated racial injustices against historically marginalized groups, and my question was ultimately formulated as a response to this interpretation.  The inkling was codified over several readings and discussions with my advisor before it was refined into a concrete question.

I was at Duke last summer working in Dr. Kevin LaBar’s lab as part of the Lafayette Alumni Research Network (LEARN). I spent a lot of time talking with the grad students and the lab manager about research, and when I brought up my thesis they mentioned that Keith Payne — a social psychologist whom I had read a ton of in preparation for my thesis — was down the road at UNC Chapel Hill. After I emailed Keith Payne, he agreed to meet with me, and he offered some great advice for my thesis. Ultimately I ended up using a procedure that he suggested (and also that he designed). It was a really nice connection, one that wouldn’t have been possible without LEARN and Dr. LaBar.

How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?

I probably spent a solid three months (mid-junior year) just reading, before I began to develop ideas for methods in the spring of my junior year.  A lot of time was spent doing literature review and consulting with professors and advisors before I settled on the final methods in the early fall of my senior year.

Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?

Yes, it was sorted out through various meetings and emails.

Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?

Yes, and sort of.  The thesis literature review was way more extensive than any other literature review I had done before.  I probably continued to read sources on and off from January of my junior year until now.

Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?

Yes.  I remember one of them suggested that I set up a meeting with a research librarian to go over the literature review, which I did, and it was extremely helpful.  Terese Heidenwolf tracked down some key journal articles that I had missed after several months of researching.

What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?

The COVID-19 pandemic pretty much blew up my data collection.  Since I couldn’t collect data remotely, I ended up just analyzing the data from the 13 participants that I already collected (instead of the 40 I planned for) plus data from the 25 participants that participated as a pilot sample in the fall. It wasn’t ideal, but I’m hoping to run the same methods early next year. Other than that, I guess there was a bit of burnout here and there.  It was especially difficult for me to pick it up again after winter break of this year, but once I did it progressed pretty smoothly.

What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?

Having a paper that is the product of more than a year of cultivating an original idea is pretty intrinsically rewarding, and I feel as though the opportunity to create such a paper while surrounded by so many resources is rare.

Also, I will begin my Ph.D. in social psychology at Florida State University next year, and the focus of the lab that I will be joining is related to my thesis work, so I would say that the thesis was instrumental in helping me prepare for my graduate studies.

What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?

I met often with Professor Schettino to discuss my progress and run ideas by him.  I remember wanting to stop by his office almost all the time to get his thoughts and opinions towards the beginning when I was refining my question and developing a design.  Towards the end, he made writing suggestions and helped with technical questions regarding the analysis.  Professor Bell gave writing suggestions as well, and the department, in general, provided funding.

Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?

I met with Terese Heidenwolf early in my senior year, after I had spent some of the summer and previous semester doing literature review.  She was incredibly helpful and located a few instrumental texts that I had previously overlooked.  I also attended the thesis student panel last year, which was very helpful.

What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (IT, parents, friends, etc.)?

My friends, including fellow thesis-writers and my research assistant, were incredibly supportive throughout the entire process.  It was wonderful to be surrounded by brilliant peers who I could bounce ideas off of and receive feedback in return.

Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?

 Definitely.  Any time I requested pay-walled documents I promptly received access from the library.  The Psychology and Neuroscience department was also very supportive, providing materials and funding throughout the project.

Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?

I don’t know if I would do anything differently.  I made many mistakes, and I wasn’t always efficient when it came to reading or writing, but that’s all part of the process.  I learned a lot and I enjoyed it.

What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?

Choose a topic that you could picture yourself thinking about every single day for at least a year.  My thesis truly dominated my academic and intellectual experience over the past 15 months — and it has been an awesome experience.

But I’m pretty sure that’s the advice everyone gives, so… (1) drink lots of Cosmic Cup espresso, and (2) surround yourself with friends who don’t mind listening to you think out loud about obscure thesis stuff when you’re out at the Separatist on a Friday night.