What academic writing looks like

By Gordon Rugg

Students often ask what good academic writing looks like. It’s an important, simple, question. Answering it in words is tricky. However, answering it with words plus highlighter makes answering easier. The answer is that good academic writing features mainly highlighter 2, with some highlighter 1 at the beginnings or ends of paragraphs, and as little grey as possible.

What does that actually look like? I’ll use a worked example to illustrate it, on the topic of the growth of the Internet. This is a difficult topic, because the key points are well known to the general public, so there’s a real risk that your opening text will look like something that a twelve year old without Internet access has hacked together at the last minute for an overdue essay.

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The apparent attraction of average faces

By Gordon Rugg

In a previous article, we looked at what happens when you take two concepts that are normally viewed as opposites, and instead treat them as two separate concepts. We used the example of what happens when you treat liking and disliking as two separate concepts, and ask people to rate items in relation to both liking and disliking.

The result is that people are willing and able to do so. The image below shows types of response that we’ve seen in real data.

Item A has been rated low both for liking and for disliking; it’s just boring, with little to be said for or against it.

Item B has been rated high both for liking and for disliking; it produces strong but ambivalent feelings. An example that we saw involved university departmental websites, where some were strongly liked because they signalled high quality, but simultaneously strongly disliked because that same signal of high quality was viewed as implying unforgivingly high expectations.

Item C has been rated high like/low dislike by some participants, and low like/high dislike by others. This is informally known in the UK as the Marmite effect, where people either love something or hate it, with few people in between.

This approach of uncoupling apparent opposites is well established in some fields, but isn’t yet widely known outside them. We’ve been using it for a while in software evaluation, where it’s invaluable for improving software mockups before committing to the final design. We’ve also blogged about ways of using it to represent expressive and instrumental behaviour; handedness; and gender roles, going back to the literature where we first encountered it, in Bem’s work on androgyny (Bem, 1974).

The advantages of using this approach are clear when you see examples. In the next section, we’ll look at the background theory on which it works. We’ll then apply it to an apparently paradoxical finding about facial attractiveness, to show how the underlying issues can be swiftly and easily teased apart via this representation.

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When liking and disliking aren’t opposites

By Gordon Rugg

Treating liking and disliking as opposite ends of the same scale looks so obvious that few people ever think about it. They’ve been viewed as opposites since at least Classical times, when Catullus wrote about the paradox of loving and hating the same person. However, this approach doesn’t actually work very well when you try applying it systematically in contexts like surveys or evaluation or market research. There are usually pros and cons that you’re asking the respondent to compress down into a single number, and respondents usually don’t look very happy about it.

So what happens if you instead try treating liking and disliking as two separate scales? The answer is that it gives you a lot of powerful new insights, because liking and disliking are often not opposites.

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Desire, novelty, and the attractions of safe Necker shifts

By Gordon Rugg

So what do wireframe Necker cubes have to do with enigmatic facial beauty, Rothko paintings, Sudoku, and video games? The answer is: Quite a lot.

In this article I’ll look at the deep structure of some popular passtimes, and consider some of the implications. This is the first in a short series of articles about the deep structures of desire.

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Mental models, medical misunderstandings, and expressive and instrumental behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

A frequent and enduring topic of complaints about medical professionals is their bedside manner.

Three common complaints are:

  • My doctor won’t listen to me
  • My doctor is cold and impersonal
  • My doctor doesn’t give me the facts

These can be explained and handled via the concepts of instrumental and expressive behaviour. Instrumental behaviour is about getting the job done; expressive behaviour is about showing how you feel about something. I’ve blogged about these concepts and their implications here and here and here.

These categories are not mutually exclusive; some people are very strong both on instrumental and on expressive behaviour, for instance. However, people tend to incline more to one than the other. The “people person” with good social skills is typically good on expressive behaviour, while the archetypal “techie” is strong on instrumental behaviour.

The issue of expressive versus instrumental behaviour is a common cause of serious misunderstandings across many domains; medicine is a classic case. Fortunately, many of these misunderstandings can be fairly easily prevented. In this article, I’ll describe the underlying concepts, and how to use them to reduce the number and severity of complaints.

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Mental models, and games people play

By Gordon Rugg

There are patterns in the ways that people interact. This article is about those patterns, and their implications.

I’ll start with a pattern known as “Ain’t it awful”. In this pattern, the other person wants you to agree with them that things are awful. I’ve shown this diagrammatically below. The interaction starts with you saying something; I’ve shown this with a white circle. They then respond with something negative, represented by a grey circle. For instance, you might tell them that you’re thinking of buying an electric car. They react by saying something about problems with electric cars.

They now want you to respond with something negative; for instance, “That’s the trouble with new technology, you can’t depend on it”. The interaction is then supposed to follow the same pattern of “Ain’t it awful” in a nice, predictable way, as shown below.

This may be nice and safely predictable for them, but it’s not so nice for you if you don’t want to be told about things being awful, and it’s not so predictable for you if you’re expecting a different type of interaction.

In the rest of this article, I’ll look at ways in which interactional patterns can play out.

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Mental models and metalanguage: Putting it all together

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.

This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.

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