2011 Janet Taylor Spence Award

William A. Cunningham

The Ohio State University

Cunningham_WilliamWhat is the focus of your award-winning research?

My lab seeks to understand the cognitive and motivational processes underlying evaluative responses and emotion. Our work suggests that current affective states are constructed moment to moment from multiple component processes that integrate relevant information from various sources such as automatically activated attitudes, situational contexts, and personal goals. Most importantly, using paradigms from social cognition and cognitive neuroscience, we have shown that processes that were once thought to be fully automatic and under no volitional control can be modulated by shifting a person’s goals and motivations, even hundreds of milliseconds after seeing a stimulus. More recently, we have expanded our framework to investigate how disparate mental states combine to generate discrete emotional states.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

My research program progressed by my never quite feeling content with my current understanding of the mind. I have always felt that any idea I was currently entertaining couldn’t be complete, and I have always tried to integrate new ideas that appeared potentially relevant. Because of this, I try to surround myself with people who can provide novel perspectives. I have continuously pulled apart my ideas and attempted to re-assemble them in unique ways. My research has thus progressed naturally from attempting to understand religious intolerance, to studying prejudice and stereotyping, to attitudes and beliefs in general, to the neuroscience of affect, to now reconsidering the definition of emotion. Each preceding stage set the groundwork for what came after as I have worked to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. Because of this, my “research area” is quite fluid. Each new data point or observation opens up new opportunities for exploration.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have been lucky to have had a series of amazing mentors and influences: my teachers in high school who turned me on to philosophy and psychology, my family who always placed a premium on debate and education, my advisors in undergraduate and graduate school, my faculty colleagues, and now my graduate students. Throughout my career, the people that have influenced me most have been the people that have challenged me and pushed me to reach my potential. In college, I was fortunate to work with John Nezlek , College of William & Mary, and Peter Derks , College of William & Mary, who shaped much of my perspective on how to think about scientific questions. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with Mahzarin Banaji , Harvard University, and Marcia Johnson , Yale University, (my wire and cloth mothers) who both gave me the space to explore, chase ideas, and construct my perspective. I cannot imagine a more perfect set of mentors.

Yet, I have had so many more mentors than just the formal ones: Liz Phelps, New York University, and John Gore at Yale; Neil Macrae, University of Aberdeen , Scotland, and Todd Heatherton during my weekend trips to Dartmouth; Phil Zelazo, University of Minnesota, Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto, Adam Anderson, University of Toronto, and Jay Pratt, University of Toronto, during my first years as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto; Marilynn Brewer, University of New South Wales, Australia, Russ Fazio, Ohio State University and Rich Petty now at Ohio State; and now in the emotion community Lisa Feldman Barrett, Northeastern University, and Gerry Clore, University of Virginia, – and this is such an incomplete list. Further, inspiration does not only flow from more senior scientists to more junior ones. Many of my research ideas now come from fantastic graduate students who challenge assumptions and generate new avenues for theory and research.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

It is difficult to judge yourself, particularly why you have been successful or not, but I know what I enjoy about the process of psychological science, and I believe that being passionate about what you do and enjoying the process of science from moment to moment has to give the intrinsic motivation that helps lead to success. Many of my successes, I think, are from being open to opportunities when presented and not being concerned about the apparent divisions within science. When I am the most open, I realize how little I know; the trick has been to be comfortable with this mental state. Because of this, I think that I have been willing to explore outside of the traditional boundaries of psychological science, and try to see how what I believe to be true needs to be modified by new perspectives. I think that approaching science this way has fostered a need for exploration and a desire to surround myself with people far smarter than I am.

It is easy to take too much credit for your own successes, and miss the important environments that contribute to development. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I was lucky enough to find places that fostered and reinforced an openness to ideas and that challenged my preconceptions. Both at The College of William & Mary and at Yale University, traditional boundaries were often disregarded and the question was always put before the method.

In addition, the field of social psychology changed in the late 1990s. At the same time as I was spending my evenings at the Medical School learning the methods of fMRI, several other students around the world were simultaneously considering the ways that cognitive neuroscience could merge with social cognition. During these formative years, I met and became friends with Matt Lieberman, The University of California, Los Angeles, Kevin Ochsner, Columbia University, Rebecca Saxe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David Amodio, New York University, Jason Mitchell, Harvard University, Joan Chiao, Northwestern University, Jennifer Beer, the University of Texas at Austin, and many others. Much of my personal success in many ways stems from our collective success and the support that we gave each other especially in those early days.

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

Research is a team activity, and any of my successes result from the interactions that I have had with so many influential people. I see this award as further validating an expansive approach to psychological science. This award is shared with all my formal and informal mentors that I have had the privilege to work with and learn from.