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Cognitive Science Student Studies Conflict

May 21, 2012 student Alexandra Paxton finds opinionated students, puts them in a room together and tells them to argue about a hot-button issue.

Then she records what happens.

Paxton, who is earning her doctoral degree in cognitive science, studies interpersonal synchrony — the phenomenon of how people in a conversation subconsciously synchronize their movements, such as nodding or gesturing. Specifically, she is seeking to understand what happens to that synchrony when people are at odds.

The goal is to better understand how people communicate and to eventually use this knowledge to improve treatment methods for trouble youth. Paxton sees the research findings being used in juvenile rehabilitation centers to help the counselors connect with the youth.

“I really think that to resolve conflict we have to understand conflict,” she said.

The lab uses a high-definition video camera and two microphones to record the arguments. A computer analyzes the footage and shows the people’s basic movements and also whether they’re moving in sync.

They discovered that people continue to be synchronous in arguments if they like the person they’re talking with. However, if they don’t like their conversation partner much, their synchrony is greatly reduced.

“We are incredibly complex in the behavior we exhibit and our understanding of it is fairly weak at the moment,” Dale said. “How on Earth do we use all these channels simultaneously when we are interacting with each other? It seems so incredibly complex.”

Paxton came to UC Merced last year from the University of Memphis after her advisor, Professor Rick Dale, accepted a job here.

She initially was interested in going into clinical psychology to treat troubled youth. Before coming to UC Merced, she spent a year working at a youth rehabilitation facility. She also spends summers volunteering at a camp for urban youth.

When she met Dale, Paxton became interested in his research into language. She wants to connect her research with the work psychologists do in the field. Her research tools are simple and could be used in the field to analyze whether people are interacting well or if someone is shutting down during an argument.

“You can get a lot of insight through synchrony,” she said. “It can teach us how to see into other’s minds.”