Professor of Communication
University of Vienna
What are you currently working on?
Together with Brigitte Naderer, Ines Spielvogel, and Alice Binder, I am working on a project about the effects of food placements in children’s media on children’s healthy eating behavior and other health-related outcomes. Funded by the Central Bank of the Republic of Austria, we combine a two-wave panel survey with a systematic analysis of the content that children are exposed to, linking survey and content analysis data. This externally valid work is complemented by a series of experimental studies on the effects of persuasive strategies on children’s healthy food consumption. Here, we typically create our own cartoon movies to insert foods and persuasive strategies, and we measure food choice as a key outcome variable. Measuring actual food choice is challenging, but when it comes to children, we believe it is absolutely crucial due to the problems associated with reflective self-reports.
Besides that, I am fortunate to lead a large project on the positive and negative effects of permanent smartphone use on adolescents’ and children’s well-being, funded by the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy. Here I am working with Desirée Schmuck, Kathrin Karsay, and Anja Stevic, and we currently analyze two panel studies, systematically looking at individual and contextual factors explaining the various outcomes of smartphone use.
Apart from that, my job as the Editor of Communication Methods & Measures as well as my commitment as Department Chair keep me quite busy.
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
Well, the most memorable project I ever did was a total disaster. It was a research project in a two-semester social psychology class during my studies in psychology, somewhere in the late 90s. We did a field study on stereotype reduction in schools, bringing together 15-year-old pupils from different school types. Back in those days, there were schools which hosted pupils who graduated after eight years of school together with students who aimed to achieve a higher educational degree (i.e., ten years of school). Because there were obvious stereotypes about the two groups (e.g., “stupid” vs. “arrogant”), my project group and I thought it would be a great idea to reduce stereotypes by forming small groups of four students and let them play cooperative games in a project class. Drawing on the idea of category-based interaction, half of the students were forming small groups consisting of students from both school types. The other randomly chosen half played the same cooperative games only with students from their own school. We did a pre- and a post-measure. I still think this sounds like a great design! But the reality was not quite what we expected. In order to do the category-based interaction, we brought together two classes in one big room, and in some cases, this went completely out of control. The students quickly realized we weren’t teachers, and we had no clue how to run a class. As a consequence, the room was super loud and some students were throwing things across the room. We somehow managed to collect data from the students, but when seeing schoolbags flying around in a classroom, you are also aware of the fact that the data won’t tell the full story. In fact, we did not observe any significant stereotype reduction in our pre-post comparison. And even tough this project was not successful, this study was still a fantastic experience, and the best class I ever attended during my studies. Well, “All theory, dear friend, is grey”.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
I can’t really single out a publication or research project I am most proud of. Single publications are tiny pieces in a humongous, endless puzzle, and I believe no study can provide a definite answer to a particular question.
What fills me with joy is to see how the students and emerging scholars who have been working with me mature and prosper over the years. To build up a research team and see its success is the most rewarding moment as a scholar. In the past two years, four of my students completed their dissertations, and I think they won a total of seven top dissertation awards, including the ICA CAM Top Dissertation Award and the ICA Kyoon Hur Dissertation Award by the Mass Communication Division.
And if I may add, to get Communication Methods & Measures ISI listed after a long and rocky road, with a top 20 rank in the very first year, puts a smile on my face.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
Well, we tend to struggle with those questions that call for a black-or-white answer. There typically is no black-or-white answer, the complexity we deal with is enormous, and the closest answer we are able to provide is, “Well, it depends”. That is not the answer that most parents and practitioners were hoping for.
What would be your work motto?
I like Ernest Shackleton’s family motto, “By endurance we conquer”. Shackleton was a British polar explorer, famous for his ill-fated trans-Antarctic expedition (1914–1917) with the ship “Endurance”. I have always been deeply fascinated by Shackleton’s biography, and particularly his catastrophic, infamous “Endurance” expedition holds a great deal of inspiration. It is pretty obvious that you need good ideas, a great team, or great skills. But ultimately, endurance is what matters when you face obstacles, failure, and disappointment…or more trivially, when not-to-be-delayed deadlines loom.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
My favorite publication is a methodological paper. Together with Franziska Marquart, Brigitte Naderer, Florian Arendt, Desirée Schmuck, and Karoline Adam, I published a paper entitled “Questionable research practices in experimental communication research”.
The piece appeared in a special issue of Communication Methods & Measures, edited by Ivar Vermeulen and Tilo Hartmann. In this study, we sampled and analyzed experiments published in the Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, and Media Psychology, that is, across all topics of our discipline. The unsurprising finding was that by far most of the hypotheses in published research tend to be verified as opposed to falsified. However, it was quite alarming to see that the ratio between the number of verified and falsified hypotheses grew significantly more positive over time, looking at a time span from 1980 to 2013. That is, in more recent years, scholars are more likely to verify their hypothesis compared to earlier research. Furthermore, we looked at the frequency with which communication research scholars reported exact p-values just below or above the notorious p = .05 mark. Again, we observed that, over time, p-values were more likely to be just below than just above p = .05.
There may be a couple of explanations for this, one being that increasing publication pressures may create systematic biases in science, biases that may seriously harm the value of our work. Consider this: At any random conference, sitting in a random panel, we still see most of the ideas verified and it is typically inspiring and makes lots of sense. Later on when socializing after the sessions, we all share our experiences on imperfections, failed studies, and rejected publications. Sometimes I think these are two different worlds, especially in times where social media permanently show us how great and successful our fellow colleagues are. Just imagine you do a study on the impact of new media technologies on children’s or adolescents’ lives: It’s a great story to find beneficial effects, its equally intriguing to tell the world that there may be harmful consequences, but how do we react when we see no effects whatsoever? Of course, we are able to detect potential publication biases in meta analyses later on, but the quest for statistical significance has consequences not only for published research, but also for the research questions we ask and the topics we choose. One key take home message of our paper is thus that we need to do more in order to give null findings the place they deserve.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
Well, the most valued resource to me would not be money to do projects, but time. With unlimited time, I’d love to do a year of theory work only, teaming up with a group of scholars from related disciplines trying to develop theoretical ideas that reflect the complexity of the phenomena we study. Theory development is like sailing out to the unknown, you never know where you will end up. Obviously, this needs a long breath, which somehow contradicts current publication logics in our field.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Three things: (1) Be self-critical: Ask others (and yourself) what you may improve about your work, (2) think broad and be curious: Look what other fields and research areas are doing, especially with respect to research methodology, and (3) be confident: Always believe in yourself.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
I would like to nominate Laura Vandenbosch from the University of Leuven, who does outstanding work on the relationship between media and well-being.
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.