2013 Janet Taylor Spence Award
What is the focus of your award-winning research?
I am interested in the origins of human cooperation. What are the social-cognitive and motivational processes that underlie cooperative behaviors such as helping, sharing, and collaborating with others? What are the origins of these behaviors in human evolution? By combining studies with children and comparative studies with great apes, I try to address these questions by examining both their ontogenetic origins and development in human children, as well as similarities and differences with our closest evolutionary relatives. My research demonstrates that young children already display altruistic motivations to help others, and that even chimpanzees share some of the basic capacities for altruistic behaviors that we find in humans.
How did you develop an interest in this area?
My first interest was actually in epistemology, and I was fascinated by Piaget’s writings because he showed how we can investigate the processes of knowledge construction and change by studying the development of children. I then became persuaded by approaches which highlight that to understand how children’s thinking develops, it is essential to look at their emerging social cognition as a fundamental capacity to acquire cultural knowledge from others and co-construct new knowledge with others. A significant moment for me was to read Michael Tomasello’s book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, which not only best articulated the notion that social cognition is at the core of human-unique cognition, but also showed how we can investigate fundamental questions about human nature by studying nonhuman primates. I am grateful that he took me on as a doctoral student and allowed me to further investigate the relationship between cognition and cooperative behavior, giving me the opportunity to learn the rules of the trade from, and co-construct new knowledge with, him.
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
When I was a young student in Berlin, Martin Hildebrand-Nilshon from the Freie Universität Berlin created a wonderful intellectual environment in which we extensively discussed developmental psychological literature. In addition, Kurt Kreppner from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development taught me the observational and statistical methods to analyze and interpret social interactions. During my time as a doctoral student and post doc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, I cannot thank Michael Tomasello enough for his guidance, enthusiasm, and willingness to turn his office into an ad-hoc playground to test out new child apparatuses during our weekly meetings. Staying true to my conviction that peer interaction fosters the generation of new knowledge, I also want to highlight how much I have learned through discussions and collaborations with my colleagues, especially Alicia Melis, Colin Bannard, Hannes Rakoczy, and Alexandra Rosati. Now at Harvard, I feel lucky to be able to discuss ideas and seek advice from Mahzarin Banaji, Peter Blake, Susan Carey, Joshua Greene, Paul Harris, Jason Mitchell, Steven Pinker, Elizabeth Spelke, and Richard Wrangham. This diversity of perspectives and breadth of knowledge has led me to pursue avenues of research that I could never have anticipated to follow.
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
I believe that one important aspect was that by investigating the development of cooperative behavior, I selected a research topic that sits at the intersection of different disciplines. The necessity to draw upon a variety of methods, learn a diversity of theoretical approaches, and translate these ideas for different audiences has helped me to shape my thinking and come up with novel ways of doing research.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I am honored to receive this award along with this group of highly distinguished colleagues. As a representative of the field of developmental and comparative psychology, I find it encouraging that this line of work receives recognition. I view this as an appreciation of the idea that we can address important questions about human nature by studying young children and nonhuman primates.