2012 Janet Taylor Spence Award
University of California, Berkeley
What is the focus of your award-winning research?
My research lies at the intersection of cognitive psychology and analytic philosophy. I’m particularly interested in how people learn about and understand the social and physical worlds. This is a very broad topic, and I’ve approached it by focusing on explanation. For example: Why are children and adults so motivated to explain? What makes some explanations so much more satisfying than others, and what are the consequences of these explanatory preferences for learning and decision making? How and when does explaining guide inference? Why does explaining — even to oneself — generate a greater sense of understanding, and when is this sense veridical? Studying explanation provides a valuable window into foundational aspects of cognition and has important ties to issues in philosophy of science and epistemology, as well as implications for education and artificial intelligence.
When not explaining explanation, I explore related topics that bridge psychological science and philosophy, including causal judgments, categorization, moral reasoning, and scientific understanding inside and outside the classroom.
How did you develop an interest in this area?
While in high school, I stumbled upon Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and became fascinated by a scientific approach to the mind. I promptly read every book that I could find with “cognitive” in the title. This led me to discover that the university in my hometown, University of California, San Diego, was a great resource for cognitive science. I was lucky enough to enroll in “Philosophy of Cognitive Science” with Paul Churchland as a senior in high school, to work with Kara Federmeier and Marta Kutas as a research assistant the summer after my high school graduation, and to work with Don MacLeod the summer after that. With this early and fantastic introduction to both philosophy and psychological science research, I was hooked.
As an undergraduate at Stanford University, I was able to study the philosophy of science with professors like Peter Godfrey-Smith, Michael Strevens, and Branden Fitelson alongside an impressive cohort of undergraduate and graduate students, including Michael Weisberg. I was struck by the parallels between issues in philosophy of science and those in human cognition. Like scientists, children and adults must understand the world around them on the basis of limited data, and they do so with the aim of explaining, predicting, and controlling their environment. It turns out that others noted this parallel long before I did, including Susan Carey (who became my graduate advisor) and Alison Gopnik (a current colleague and valued mentor).
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
I’ve already mentioned several key players in my path to becoming a psychological scientist. Steven Pinker’s popular writing first introduced me to cognitive science, and Pinker himself later served as a member of my dissertation committee. Even though I was a high school student at the time, Paul Churchland let me enroll in his upper-division philosophy course, Marta Kutas welcomed me into her lab as a summer intern, and Kara Federmeier served as a generous mentor. Now that I’m a professor, I better appreciate how fortunate I was to have these opportunities.
As an undergraduate, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joshua Tenenbaum, and Ellen Markman were important influences, with the former two eventually serving on my dissertation committee as well. All three exemplify valuable ways in which philosophical ideas can be fruitfully combined with empirical findings and research.
Susan Carey was an outstanding graduate advisor and mentor who serves as a model for “philosophical psychology” and raw smarts. I also benefited enormously from the cognitive science communities at Harvard and MIT, and was lucky to find additional mentors and advocates at other universities, including Steven Sloman and, later, Barbara Spellman.
As an assistant professor, I find myself in a department that supports my interdisciplinary interests. Alison Gopnik has been an especially helpful colleague and mentor who artfully bridges philosophy and psychology within and beyond the academy.
And finally, I have to mention my parents and my husband, who have been and continue to be “psychological influences” in all senses.
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
Beyond the opportunities and mentors noted above, I’ve experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of working at the intersection of two disciplines. I’m too “psychological” for a philosopher and too “philosophical” for a psychologist, but as a result I’m in a position to benefit from the ideas and methods of both fields, and I feel at home in a small but growing community of like-minded researchers blurring the boundaries between these disciplines.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
It’s an enormous honor to have my research recognized by the APS and to appear in such distinguished company.
While psychological science has made considerable strides towards gender equity, my involvement with philosophy — in which women are still seriously underrepresented — makes me especially pleased to receive an award that recognizes the important contributions of Janet Taylor Spence, a role model as a scientist and woman in academia as well as a pioneering researcher of gender and attitudes toward women.