The Self-Reg View on: The Everyday Process of Research

Self-Reg for parents, photo of man and son sitting on the grass together

I didn’t realize it, but I have been a researcher all my life. I don’t mean “adult life.” The roots of being a researcher have always been part of my daily experience. You may think this made me a sort of odd child-scientist. But actually, research is a fundamental way we all explore our world. Understanding how we engage in research on a daily basis is an important part of how we apply the science of Self-Regulation into our personal and professional lives.

Research is useful to all of us. It is a way to answer questions and to gain a better understanding of our experiences. For example, I conducted a very systematic research study at my home over the past few years. The problem was serious. My spouse, Eric, loved my mom’s lasagna but did not like mine. Let’s just say this is a sore point for me, as I taught my mom how to make this lasagna. I needed to figure out what was wrong. Research was the process to answer this question.

Step 1 of the research process is observation. Any research begins with observing the situation carefully. The idea is to develop a really good description of the phenomena at hand. I carefully observed Eric and his reaction to both lasagnas. He definitely ate more of my mom’s lasagna when it was served. He also made more spontaneous verbal statements like “This is amazing!” and, “Can I have more?”

I also carefully took apart each lasagna, trying to identify the differences. I used all my observational skills and realized that there were some differences between the two dishes—mainly, Mom used twice as much cheese. Armed with this knowledge, I was ready for Step 2 of the research process: developing a “model,” or an explanation of the phenomenon that allows us to make predictions. A good model accounts for all of the observations and can be used to make predictions about the role of the key factors—in this case, the cheese.

 

Now I could move to testing my hypothesis (Step 3 in the research process). I set up an experiment where I served a lasagna made with double the cheese, just like Mom’s. My outcome measures were the amount lasagna Eric ate and his verbal assessment of yumminess.

I waited for the positive results with great excitement, but it didn’t work out. He still didn’t like my lasagna. I was disappointed, but this setback was just an expected and necessary part of the research process.

My explanatory “model” needed work because something was missing. I went back to step one and looked for other aspects that may account for Eric’s lasagna preference. Over time and experimentation, I started to develop a better “model” of Eric’s lasagna behaviour. It wasn’t just the cheese. It was also my mom’s hand with the spices in her sauce (because my mom doesn’t work from a recipe and so replication is challenging). I realized that his preference was also related to the garlic bread she always served and that he knows she makes it just for him on special occasions (an important subjective factor). I am, over time, gaining a better understanding of Eric’s preferences and how to influence his lasagna experience. Eventually, I hope to understand his lasagna preferences enough so that I can hear the words, “This is as good as your mom’s,” from him one day.

 

The process I outlined somewhat irreverently here mirrors the research process for the science of self-regulation, whether we are trying to understand the principles of applying self-regulation across an entire school, or individually trying to understand how to best support a specific child (or ourselves). We cannot miss steps. We need careful observations, we need to make predictions and test them out, but most importantly, we need to notice when our predictions don’t work out and start the research process back at Step 1. As daily researchers, we are actually open to the idea that research is iterative and ongoing. Each return to Step 1 offers a new opportunity to learn something more.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology from York University and the Founder & Visionary of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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