Undergraduate Research

Harriet Cass Skowronek ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Harriet Cass Skowronek ’23

Harriet Cass Skowronek
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Harriet Cass Skowronek (she/her) is majoring in psychology. She conducts research under the mentorship of Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Clinton Merck. Her project is titled “The effects of behavioral synchrony on Theory-of-Mind among collaborative music-makers.”

Please describe your project:

Human beings have an intrinsic drive to make music together. Music-making and music listening have been shown to engender meaningful effects on emotion, cognition, and social cognition. Group music-making, for example, can increase cooperation, expand our memory capacity for details about a conversation partner, decrease the strength of in-group versus out-group boundaries, and enhance the empathy that we feel toward out-group members. Behavioral synchrony, which is the simple act of doing a motion in time with others, has similar effects on social cognition. 

Theories of collaborative music-making suggest that performers get better at synchronizing with practice, possibly because the cognitive mechanisms that allow us to synchronize get more sensitive. This project aims to understand whether increased sensitivity extends to the effects that synchrony has on social cognition. Are people who spend a lot of time fine-tuning their synchronization mechanisms more sensitive to the changes that synchronization elicits in social cognition? To test this question, participants are grouped based on how much time they spend playing collaborative music. Participants then do a simple behavioral synchrony task before taking several social cognition tests. Using process analysis techniques, I set up data analyses that investigate whether frequent collaborative music-makers are more susceptible than others to the enhancements in social cognition that result from behavioral synchrony activities. 

I hope that this research can help to support future work in investigating whether simple behavioral synchrony moderates the relationship between music and our social cognition. 

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

Why are humans so motivated to make music together, and what gives music the power to affect our thoughts and feelings? This project investigates whether the simple act of synchronizing our motions is at the root of music’s magic.

Why is your research important?

Music is increasingly used as a tool in corporate settings, classrooms, and therapies because of its capacity to enhance social cognition and increase our ability to communicate. This project can help us to understand why music is so powerful and how to make music-based interventions more accessible in a wider range of settings.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Data collection sessions for this project each involve two participants. After demonstrating the behavioral synchrony task and leaving the room while participants complete it, I administer social cognition tests. Because this project is in its final stages, a typical day also involves working on data analysis and editing my final thesis.

In what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

I have presented this work to Professor Merck’s lab and my Honors faculty committee. I hope to showcase my work at future symposia and plan to submit the paper to journals for publication.  

Harriet looking at a white board holding a markerHow did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college?

In my first ever psychology class, I realized that what interested me most in each paper we read was the research methodology employed. I began to read papers published by the Oberlin psychology faculty and became fascinated with the research process, its nitty-gritty lows, and its triumphant theoretical successes. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

I enjoy the problem-solving dimension of research. I love the idea that we can use research to examine the component parts of complex phenomena, like music, that are so central to our lives. Every stage of this project has encouraged me to keep exercising those problem-solving muscles!  

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Working with Professor Merck has been my favorite part of my research experience. His guidance has encouraged me to think creatively, design hopefully, interpret carefully, and has inspired my drive to strive to create good science as I go forward as a researcher. 

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

Because this project has required me to make primarily independent decisions at every stage, I have learned to prepare for everything at higher levels, which has served me in all my classes. The research process has afforded me copious opportunities to develop networking, presenting, writing, and speaking skills that make me confident as I prepare to graduate and enter the profession sphere. 

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

Take the leap – whether that means getting involved in projects that seem intimidating, emailing professors to ask about their work, or presenting in nerve-wracking situations. We have unique opportunities at Oberlin to interact closely with professors and their research, and the wisdom and guidance that our professors have to offer is only accessed by taking risks and getting involved!