Last month, Wiley and the British Academy awarded prizes for excellence in research in the fields of Economics and Psychology. Professor James Fenske of Warwick University was awarded the prize for Economics for his academic excellence in the field of economic history, in particular the quantitative economic history of Africa. Dr. Stephen Fleming of University College London was the recipient of the Wiley Prize for Psychology for his contribution to the study of the neuropsychology of human metacognition.
Each annual prize provides an award of £5,000 to the recipient.
We recently had the opportunity to ask the winners a couple of questions about their research.
Q: Why did you decide to study economics and economic history in particular?
A: At Queen's University, I was drawn into economic history by taking classes from and interacting with people like Alan Green, Iean Keay, Byron Lew, Frank Lewis, Huw Lloyd-Ellis, Marvin McInnis, David Parker, and Robert Shenton. At Yale, my advisors Timothy Guinnane, Ben Polak, and Christopher Udry, provided me with encouragement and support that further encouraged me to pursue this career path.
Q: From your research, what economic lessons can we learn from the past?
A: Economic history is relevant to the present both directly and by analogy. First, history continues to exert important influences on the present. Many other scholars have shown the persistent importance of Africa's slave trades, its pre-colonial states, and its institutions governing property rights. In my own work, I have tried to understand the origins of these historical variables. Second, history gives us more data than is available only looking at recent years. In my own work I have tried to add to our understanding of the causes of conflict, land disputes, and political unrest by examining data from the colonial and precolonial periods.
Q&A with Stephen Fleming
Q: What is Metacognition and how did it become the focus of your research?
A: Metacognition means “thinking about thinking” -- the ability to monitor and control other cognitive processes, often in the absence of external feedback. For example, a student who believes she has studied enough for an upcoming exam is engaging in metacognition about the strength of her memory. People often liken the brain to a computer -- but as far as we know, being able to reflect on our own thoughts sets us aside from almost all other thinking devices on the planet. I study how metacognition works and how it is implemented in the human brain.
As an undergraduate I completed a degree in Psychology and Physiology at Oxford. While I was there I had a fantastic tutor, Dr. Paul Azzopardi, who introduced me to the field of psychophysics, which uses mathematical models to understand subjective experience. That opened my eyes to the idea we could create a rigorous neuroscience of metacognition, and I went on to complete a PhD in brain imaging at UCL before starting my own research program.
Q: What questions are you hoping your research will answer?
A: In the short term, I’m interested in unpacking the psychological and neural processes supporting metacognition about different types of mental state, understanding how it facilitates self-control, and how metacognition becomes disrupted in cases of brain damage and psychiatric disorders. In the lab we use very simple but carefully controlled decision scenarios, such as judging the brightness of patches on a computer screen, and ask people to reflect on how well they’re doing. We can then use computer models and brain imaging to understand what happens when metacognition is engaged. The ultimate aim is to reveal the mechanisms in the human brain that support self-reflection. In turn this should lead to a better understanding of changes in subjective experience that plague disorders of mental health.
Q: What does winning this prize mean to you?
A: I’m delighted to receive the Wiley Prize in Psychology. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether the research we’re doing is on the right track (academics have poor metacognition about their own research!), so it’s great to know that people find it of interest. I’ve also benefited from superb mentorship during my early career, and this award owes much to the many individuals who have supported my interests and nudged me to keep going. Finally, it’s also lovely to receive a British Academy Award. My area of research blends elements of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and the British Academy is a brilliant cheerleader for this kind of interdisciplinary research.
Congratulations to the winners of this year’s prizes!
Image Credits: 1. British Academy, 2. Stephen Fleming