Associate Professor Jason Tangen

Associate Professor

School of Psychology
Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences
jtangen@psy.uq.edu.au
+61 7 336 56774

Overview

I’m an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science in the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland.

I spend most of my time investigating the cognitive processes involved in learning new skills. For example, we’ve been working closely with policing and security agencies to help experts interpret evidence more effectively and reduce the amount of time that it takes to train examiners. I take great pleasure in working across multiple domains from basic visual processes to high level decision making, misinformation, and insight moments.

I received a BASc in Philosophy and Psychology from The University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada where I grew up, and a PhD in Psychology from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before moving to Sydney in 2004 for a postdoctoral fellowship at UNSW, and joined The University of Queensland in 2006.

I work with some outstanding collaborators, and I have been fortunate to have many wonderful honours and PhD students in my lab.

Research Interests

  • Expertise in Forensic Decision Making
    “CSI”-style TV shows give the impression that fingerprint identification is fully automated. In reality, when a fingerprint is found at a crime scene, it is a human examiner who is faced with the task of identifying the person who left the print. We conducted one of the first empirical tests of fingerprint identification, finding that examiners possess genuine expertise in matching fingerprints (Tangen, Thompson & McCarthy, 2011; Thompson, Tangen & McCarthy, 2013). Since these early experiments, we have conducted dozens of lab- and field-based experiments on fingerprint expert, trainee, and novice participants. We provided evidence that expertise in forensic identification is characteristically fast (Thompson, Tangen & McCarthy, 2014; Thompson, Tangen & Searston, 2014), is affected by the similarity (Searston, Tangen, & Eva, 2016), that the visual structure of forensic evidence is distributed across prior instances (Searston & Tangen, 2016), and is domain specific (Searston & Tangen, 2017). We have examined how experts constrain their attention to relevant features that will enable them to make decisions quickly and accurately (Robson, Tangen, & Searston, 2020), and extract important features more efficiently than novices (Robson, Searston, Edmond, McCarthy, & Tangen, 2020). We have also demonstrated that pooling the decisions of small, independent groups of analysts can substantially boost the performance of these crowds and reduce the influence of errors (Tangen, Kent, & Searston, 2020).
  • Communicating Uncertainty
    As John Allen Paulos once said, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” Indeed, we all try to articulate or even quantify this sense of uncertainty everyday in predicting future events or deciding what to do. In science, we tend to convey our level of uncertainty by comparing our observations to “chance” or control groups to infer something meaningful about reality. But if uncertainty is not communicated clearly and effectively, then mistakes will happen, even in high-stakes situations where people’s lives are at stake in areas such as diagnostic medicine, legal decision making, climate change, or intelligence analysis. We have explored perceptions of error and involvement of human judgment in each stage of forensic analysis (Ribeiro, Tangen, McKimmie, 2019), and demonstrated that people struggle to understand and evaluating probabilistic information (Ribeiro, Tangen, McKimmie, 2020) compared to conveying the same information using a diagnostic information approach that we developed (Edmond, Thompson, & Tangen, 2014), which provides decision-makers with the tools they need to make inferences about the current case based on information about how examiners perform in previous, similar situations. We have translated our findings for use in the legal system to support law reform by publishing dozens of review and commentary papers in leading law reviews, and discipline-focused journals (e.g., Edmond et al, 2014, 2015, 2017).
  • Insight and the Eureka Heuristic
    An “Aha!” or insight experience occurs when a solution to a problem presents itself suddenly and without warning. For example, while waiting to go to a concert, mathematician Yitang Zhang discovered the solution to the twin prime problem. He said that he “...immediately knew that it would work,” and then it took several months to verify his solution. The mathematician Jacques Hadamard said that, “on being very abruptly awakened by an external noise, a solution long searched for appeared to me at once without the slightest instant of reflection on my part.” Given the myriad thoughts that appear in our minds at any given moment, it’s interesting to know why some ideas are dismissed as meaningless distractions while others are grasped as significant or profound. These insight moments make an idea feel more true or valuable in order to aid quick and efficient decision-making — akin to a heuristic — which we can now detect and measure reliably (Laukkonen & Tangen, 2018). But we have argued that these feelings of insight have a dark side: they can make misinformation feel true and we discuss circumstances where they may inspire false beliefs and delusions (Laukkonen, Kaveladze, Tangen, & Schooler, 2020). Indeed, these so-called false insights have been difficult to investigate, but we have developed a new paradigm to reliably induce false insights in order to explore their origins. Our broader goal is to better understand how to calibrate these experiences so we can help people to better distinguish between true and false information.
  • The Flashed Face Distortion Effect
    In 2010, Sean Murphy — an honours student in the lab — was “eye aligning” hundreds of faces for a memory experiment we were about to run. He noticed that when he quickly flicked through the faces on the screen one-by-one, they began to appear highly distorted and even monstrous. For example, if a person had a large jaw, it looked particularly large, almost ogre-like. If a person had a slender nose, then it looked remarkably thin. The faces appeared to be almost like caricatures. When Sean stopped, the faces appeared normal again. We described this basic finding as a flashed face distortion effect (Tangen, Murphy, & Thompson, 2011), and uploaded a simple demonstration to YouTube, which attracted a lot of attention so we posted another video shortly after using celebrity faces. We have conducted dozens of experiments since then to figure out how to optimise the effect; we developed an elegant way to quantify its strength, and used multidimensional scaling to predict which faces would appear most distorted. Unfortunately, these experiments were fairly basic in order to fit within the scope of a one-year honours project, so we haven’t yet published the results. We’re hoping to find an enthusiastic PhD student who’s willing to spend a few years working on this project so we can properly investigate this interesting effect.
  • The Style of a Category
    Humans and non-humans are remarkably sensitive to style. We recognise the works of artists and composers, a sense of what does and does not belong to a particular genre of writing, what drivers in the right lane are likely to do that drivers in the left are not, or what a normal interaction with a teller at our bank is like. Often this sensitivity develops effortlessly and without any intention to learn them. Many animals, such as chimpanzees, rats, pigeons, and fish can demonstrate similar sensitivities to style in art, music, and even handwriting. For example, we demonstrated that even honeybees can learn to distinguish paintings by Monet from those by Picasso (Wu, Moreno, Tangen, & Reinhard, 2013). The visual style of a category refers to the features and visual cues that covary across images. For example, Monet was certainly fond of waterlilies, but this feature certainly doesn’t define his artistic style. It’s the same notion as Wittgenstein’s description of various “games” — board games and ball games have some commonalities, but also many differences. It is only when you look across several instances that a resemblance emerges. For example, we demonstrated that people are able to remember images that have been downscaled to a single pixel and can distinguish between categories well above chance with images that are only 2x2 pixels (Searston, Thompson, Vokey, French, & Tangen, 2019). Much of the research in our lab is based on this notion of style since this sensitivity influences our performance in virtually every task that we undertake.

Research Impacts

Accurate and timely identification of criminals and crime scene evidence is an important issue for Australia’s law enforcement agencies. Upholding legal processes and criminal justice social legitimacy through more reliable forensic evidence will help to prevent wrongful convictions and permit rightful convictions. Indeed, the consequences of misses and false identifications in forensics are potentially devastating – innocent people could be wrongly convicted, and guilty people could pass undetected or be wrongly acquitted. Our research has resulted in a better understanding of the source of identification errors, the factors that influence performance, and the nature of expertise in fingerprint identification. We provide a scientific basis for demonstrating the validity of forensic methods and measures of uncertainty in the conclusions of forensic analyses. This research allows police, intelligence systems and investigators to interpret evidence more effectively and efficiently, help to reduce the amount of time that it takes to train novices to experts, assist forensic examiners in the development of evidence-based training programs, discourage exaggerated interpretations of forensic evidence, and help in the development of a model of expert testimony that does not extend beyond the capabilities of examiners or beyond the scope of our experimental findings.

Qualifications

  • Doctor of Philosophy, McMaster University

Publications

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Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

  • Doctor Philosophy

View all Supervision

Available Projects

  • If you'd like to join the lab, please read through some of our projects descriptions and papers to see if you're interested in the research questions we're asking.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Featured Publications

Book Chapter

Journal Article

Conference Publication

Other Outputs

Grants (Administered at UQ)

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

Completed Supervision

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • If you'd like to join the lab, please read through some of our projects descriptions and papers to see if you're interested in the research questions we're asking.