2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award

David Amodio

New York University


 What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My research examines the psychological and neural mechanisms of intergroup relations and self-regulation. One line of work examines the sources of intergroup bias — how are different forms of bias learned, how are they expressed in behavior, and how might they be extinguished? My research applies a memory systems framework to understand the different characteristics of implicit memory processes that underlie affective and cognitive forms of intergroup bias.

My other major line of work focuses on mechanisms of self-regulation — how do people respond without bias in their social behaviors? Using neuroscience models along with classic theories of motivation and social cognition, I’ve tried to distinguish mechanisms of control that underlie this process. So far, this work has helped us understand why regulation sometimes fails, why some people are better regulators than others, and why extrinsic social goals are more difficult to attain than intrinsic goals. By considering the stress-related neurochemical effects on neural structures involved in self-regulation, this work also sheds light on how anxiety facilitates some forms of regulation but impairs others.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I’ve always been concerned with issues of social justice and fairness, and I’ve always been interested in how the mind works. It wasn’t until I took courses in social and cognitive psychology as an undergraduate that I realized I could combine these interests. And when I discovered the social cognition literature on stereotyping and prejudice, I was hooked.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I wanted to understand the distinct roles of affect and cognition in implicit bias, especially as they related to different underlying memory systems. But when it became clear that conventional social cognition approaches were limited in addressing these questions, my advisor, Patricia Devine, encouraged me to consider neuroscience approaches. Following her advice, I delved into neuroscience research on emotion and fear conditioning and joined the Emotions training program under the direction of Richard Davidson. There, I learned much more about neuroscience and links between emotion and biological processes. At the same time, Eddie Harmon-Jones joined the UW faculty, and I began to work with him to learn psychophysiological methods, which we then used to test our ideas on the role of fear conditioning in implicit affective bias. With our questions guiding us, the integration of social psychology and neuroscience seemed natural. This set the stage for most of the work I’ve done since.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have been fortunate to have many great mentors in psychology, beginning with Colleen Kelley (undergraduate) and Carolin Showers (1st-year PhD). My graduate school advisors, Patricia Devine and Eddie Harmon-Jones, were my primary and most influential mentors. They emphasized a thoughtful, principled, and programmatic approach to science. I was also strongly influenced by the Emotion Training Program at UW-Madison and the broader community of researchers there. As a postdoc at UCLA, my sponsors were Shelley Taylor and Matt Lieberman. They taught me about “big” science that depends on interdisciplinary collaborations. While at UCLA, I also benefitted from the advice and support of Cindy Yee Bradbury and Jim Sidanius. In recent years, my senior colleagues/friends at NYU (too many to list) have mentored me while I’ve learned the ropes of being an assistant professor.

Regarding more distal influences, I really admire scientists who were skilled at capturing the essence of enduring psychological questions, such as Gordon Allport and Jerome Bruner, as well as the early trailblazers in social neuroscience like John Cacioppo and Shelley Taylor. I am also increasingly influenced by philosophers and methodologists who have thought carefully about issues of scientific inference in psychology. These issues are especially critical when one’s science crosses levels of analysis, as in social and cognitive neuroscience.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I’ve had several important mentors who have invested an awful lot of time and effort into training me. This is certainly a major factor. But this isn’t necessarily unique. I was also in the right place at the right time. In the mid-to-late 90s, I was testing basic social cognitive mechanisms with Trish Devine, studying psychophysiological approaches to emotion and motivation with Eddie Harmon-Jones, and learning cognitive and affective neuroscience from Richie Davidson. It was a unique milieu that that made the integration of social psychology and neuroscience in my work seem obvious and natural.

Beyond training and timing, a focus on one’s core theoretical questions, and a willingness to follow them wherever they take you, has been key, along with persistence and a thick skin. These qualities aren’t unique to me, but I think they have been critical for whatever success I’ve had.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Winning this award is humbling, because it reminds me of the many amazing early career researchers in the field today. They are a constant source of inspiration and excitement. Professionally, the award is a major source of encouragement — it’s good to know that my work might be helping to advance the field that I care so much about.