Fresh Faculty: Carrie Palmquist
Issue   |   Wed, 01/29/2014 - 01:22

Assistant Professor of Psychology Carrie Palmquist grew up in Northern Virginia. She received a BA from the College of William & Mary where she majored in Psychology and Linguistics. She received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Virginia. Her research explores how children learn about the world around them. Specifically, she is interested in how children use other people’s nonverbal communication (e.g., pointing and gaze) to decide when someone will be a good source of information. Her work has been published in journals such as Cognition and Development, Psychological Science, and Psychological Bulletin.

Q: How did you begin studying psychology, and what made you decide to pursue it?
A: I guess like most people, I took an intro course in college, and it was really interesting to me. Then I ended up taking a developmental class, which is now my area of specialty, and realized that I really enjoyed working with kids. I became fascinated with this idea of origins. What are we born with, what did we develop early in life and how can that help us understand who we are innately and who we are based on what we experience in our early lives.

Q: What is your research on?
A: My research is geared toward understanding how children learn about the world around them. So, there are a lot of things children can learn through first-hand experience — they can learn how to ride a bike by actually riding a bike. But there are a lot of things that they can’t learn through first-hand experience — that they have to learn from other people. Like the fact that germs exist or the earth is round. Those things you can’t go out into the world and experience. You have to believe them when someone tells you that these things exist.
And so the question that motivated a lot of my research is, how do [children] decide if someone is telling them something that is true? Because in order to believe [a person], children have to know that yeah what they are telling me is reliable, good information. So my adviser in grad school was focused on that question, and I became interested in not only the verbal information that people provide, but also the non-verbal information. So, my research is really about what kids think about the gestures that we use and how they use [those gestures] to make decisions about the people around them.

Q: Do you think that children have a better understanding of non-verbal communication than adults because they have to rely on it more?
A: So you’d think that would be the case, but it takes them a little while to figure out how to use those gestures. Until kids are about a year old, they don’t know how to point at things and they’re not very good at following other people’s points. A lot of people think this is because children have to first understand that someone has an intention to share info with them. So until infants understand that “oh you’re an individual that’s different from me, you have information that might be different than what I have” they might think that your point is like any other action—which isn’t informative. But once they understand that other people have thoughts and desires that are different than their own--they can start to understand those gestures as communicative.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester?
A: I’ll be teaching Developmental Psych and Introduction to Psychology.

Q: You wrote in your biography on the Amherst College website that you design ”courses so that students can identify and practice application of their skills outside of the classroom, in a wide array of experiences and pursuits”. Could you give an example of a skill students learn in your class that they can apply to the outside world?
A: I think developmental psychology is really well suited to thinking about ways that you can use your knowledge in everyday situations. While most of my students are likely not going to be psychology professors or psychology researchers, a lot of my students are probably going to have kids. And so we talk a lot about making decisions based on research and things we learn in class ... Things like how do you decide which school you’re going to send your kids to, what kinds of punishment are appropriate for children at different ages, deciding whether you want to have a baby at home or the hospital. Those are all decisions that a lot of people are confronted with, and there’s actual research to help people make those decisions. But until you actually become a good consumer of that research, and learn about the different principles that inform those decisions, it can be difficult to make the right decision for you.
In my upper level classes, I like to teach people skills that they’ll have to use no matter what job they get. For example, to explain ideas clearly and concisely. We do a lot of presenting. We do a lot of research reading, because even if you don’t become a researcher, we’re always reading articles in the newspaper that come out. It’s really helpful to become a good consumer of research.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: It’s great living here because I enjoy doing a lot of outside activities. I love to run, and just blow off some steam outside. I also have a cat and spend a lot of time hanging out with my cat. And I enjoy cooking, baking. I enjoy traveling as well — we try to get around and experience new places — whether it’s local, finding new towns and new restaurants, or going to a new part of the country as well.