Jens Koed Madsen is Assistant Professor in Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science.
What are you currently researching?
I always have a couple of projects happening at the same time, including works on environmental sustainability, modelling how people seek out and process information, and how to model dynamic human-environment systems. At the moment, I am particularly interested in exploring how disinformation can spread through social networks. This is a tricky problem, as information systems are a complex mesh of individual cognitive components such as belief revision, social aspects such as the friends and sources you seek out, and structural and political elements such as how social media platforms recommend content to users. Understanding the interplay between these elements help us to understand how information spreads, and phenomena such as echo chambers, micro-targeting, and polarisation.
I am also running some more classic cognitive psychological experiments. For example, I am comparing a couple of theories on the interplay between the strength of an argument, the credibility of the messenger, and motivation to engage critically with the argument. This has some really fascinating non-trivial relationships that I want to include in these broader information systems models.
Why did you choose this area of research?
For me, research must be simultaneously intellectually stimulating and societally relevant. From the get-go, this particular research project is driven partly by my curiosity as to why people come to believe very different things (e.g. why some people remain sceptical of climate change despite the amount of evidence that it is happening) and partly by a desire to research something that has real-world impact.
I have always been fascinated by how people see information and how they are persuaded to believe different things (as an undergraduate student I studied rhetorical theory at the University of Copenhagen and many of my interests from that humanities background still influence my thinking today). I think we are too focussed on outcomes (i.e. measuring what people believe) and sometimes forget to focus on the process that brought them there (i.e. how and why people update their beliefs).
Alongside this, I am keen to conduct research that has societal applications. In the information systems work, for example, I talk with behavioural scientists in government, with NGOs, who safeguard democracies and elections, and with campaigners. I want to help clarify some of the challenges on misinformation that societies are faced with so that we can have better interventions – or at least understand the risks we take when we design our political and technological systems.
What wider impact would you like your research to have on the world?
The purpose of the work on disinformation is to test and optimise interventions to reduce its deleterious impacts. For example, we have seen the negative impact of people who believe that the 2020 Presidential election in the USA was stolen. We have to safeguard our democracies whilst simultaneously protecting fundamental principles such as freedom of speech. This is no trivial issue, as protection and rights often clash in practice – for example, what is classified as disinformation? How can we distinguish between misinformation and disinformation? How can we best safeguard elections and build trust in electoral systems whilst retaining our democratic rights of freedom of speech? That is, to advise on how to build more constructive information systems that are fit for democratic and inclusive purposes.
You recently received an LSE Excellence in Education award (congratulations!), what does the award mean to you?
I am incredibly proud of the fact that my teaching was recognised by the School. I have always thought that academic work has to include passionate teaching – if we are not able to engage with our students and tell them of all the interesting theories, models, debates, and ideas, we are doing a disservice not only to them, but also to our own research.
Having started at LSE during the COVID-19 pandemic, it means a lot to me that I have forged relationships with colleagues, students, and the wider LSE community. For the latter, I have recently won the LSE Innovation Challenge award to set up an applied arm of my research. This is really exciting, as it allows me to engage with practical problems and couple these to fundamental research questions on misinformation, belief revision, and information systems. Both the LSE Excellence in Education award and the Innovation Challenge shows the support that LSE is prepared to give to assistant professors such as myself, which is encouraging.
What have you got coming up over the next year?
Aside from the usual spiel of publishing, teaching, supervising, mentoring, applying for funds, and the committee work, there are a few things that I want to focus on over the next 12 months.
Firstly, with my PhD students, I am building a small group within the department. We are called the Decision-making in Interactive Complex Environments (DICE) lab and focus on computational approaches to social scientific questions (e.g. Bayesian models, agent-based models, data scraping, and such methods). I have been fortunate to engage with some brilliant PhD students in this group such as Sayeh Yousefi, Chen-Ta Sung, and Da’Quallon Smith as well as former undergraduate students with whom I continue to work such as Nicole George and Cassy Teigen. I want to build DICE within the department over the next couple of years.
Alongside this, I want to promote data science and computational social science within PBS. For example, a number of students and colleagues are interested in learning more about complex human-environment systems modelling. To do this, I am building a coding club (tentatively called the Turtle Club because agents in a programming language called Netlogo are called turtles). I hope that this, alongside DICE, is a step toward building a community of CSS people at PBS.
More on Jens's research
Jens recently spoke to LSE about his research in this short film which you can watch on Instagram here.