Take 10 with... Nickola Overall

Professor Nickola Overall gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research into building healthy relationships by overcoming emotional, attachment and behavioral difficulties.

Professor Nickola Overall, School of Psychology
Professor Nickola Overall, School of Psychology

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Building healthy relationships by overcoming emotional, attachment and behavioral difficulties.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

I study why relationships screw us up and what we can do about it.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

Most of my research time is devoted to:

  • overseeing our research team, who do most of the hard work running research sessions observing families as they discuss conflict, parent their children, or try to cope with stressful situations
  • working with graduate students to analyse and write up data
  • meeting, arguing about and writing up projects with collaborators
  • analysing and writing up my ‘own’ projects.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

Everything. I love designing and analysing studies that support our ideas and predictions, and I also enjoy discovering when our theories and predictions are likely wrong.

I am lucky that, because relationships are so central to human life, studying families and relationships involves investigating an array of fundamental social processes: biases, emotions, influence, conflict, support, health and well-being, power, sexism, aggression, and more.

I am always learning, and I am constantly challenged into new areas by great students who have a range of interests. I love writing and I enjoy working with students to write up their research.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

Often I am surprised about how much people overlook the importance of family and relationship science. We all know that family are the most important part of our lives and that our relationships determine our happiness every day.

Perhaps because we are so embedded in our relationships, people (including funders) are not always intrigued about understanding how they work or think we already know what we need to know. The challenges families face, the rates and pain of dissolution and divorce, and the prevalence and damage of poor family functioning, clearly show that isn’t the case. Of course, I am also guilty of overlooking the science when my research interferes with the time, energy and patience I give my own relationships!

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

My primary goal is to understand how naturally occurring emotional and behavioral dynamics shape the course of people’s lives and relationships. However, longitudinal studies of families take years to collect, are expensive, and – given the consequences of relationships for health and wellbeing — can produce ethical dilemmas.

These challenges step up when we are trying to increase sample diversity, examine processes that are harmful (aggression, poor parenting) and replicate effects across studies and contexts. Meeting these challenges has involved collaborating with students and colleagues to build up a reservoir of studies that are used to replicate key family processes.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

When I was early career, I found it difficult to stick to what I thought was good science because the time it took to use the ‘right’ methods clashed with the pressure to publish quickly. Now as an editor, I am disappointed by the overuse of designs that don’t capture real social processes as they actually matter in people’s lives. This reflects a constant question we are faced with in our research, teaching, service and life: how do we prioritise what really matters?

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I want our research to change the way the field approaches and understands relationship and family processes, including reducing an individual-centric view of human psychology that ignores the fundamental relational aspects of who we are. Ultimately, I want our research to help people have happier and healthier relationships.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

The majority of my collaborators are scholars in the United States, Europe and Australia. We are increasingly pooling data across labs to promote the replicability of relationship science.

My main collaborator within the Faculty of Science is Associate Professor Annette Henderson, whose expertise is in developmental science. Together we identify family risk processes (stress, parenting, family conflict) that have detrimental effects for child health, well-being and development, along with family resilience processes (family cohesion, coparenting) that protect child health and well-being.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Stick to what you think is most important and what you are most passionate about. Ignore the people who don’t get it, ignore the scholars who think what they study or do is superior, and try to resist giving in to the metrics. Remember how lucky you are to investigate and teach about what you love, and try to write every day.