2012 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Aaron C. Kay

Duke University

This is a photo of Aaron C. Kay.What is the focus of your award-winning research?

At the broadest level, my research focuses on understanding how various individual-level existential and epistemic motivations manifest as specific beliefs and attitudes, especially those beliefs and attitudes that are relevant to pressing social and societal issues, ranging from injustice and inequality to political and religious ideologies and beliefs. More specifically, my research — which primarily employs experimental methodologies — seeks to answer a range of interrelated questions: How do people maintain beliefs in just and legitimate social systems despite glaring examples of injustice? What are the various psychological mechanisms and phenomena that prevent social change and maintain the status quo? What are the motivational bases of specific ideological and religious belief systems? Might many common, mundane-seeming actions and beliefs be due, at least in part, to the human attempt to explain and understand seemingly unexplainable instances of unfairness? In answering these questions, I have drawn primarily on two related theoretical orientations — system justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) and compensatory control theory (Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008) — with the goal of leveraging these theories to help shed new light on important social phenomena while also searching for ways to further develop and refine the theories themselves.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I’m going to cheat a bit here and use this question to answer the first part of the question below, because (truthfully) my mentors are the ones who developed my interests (and I have far too many people to mention below to fit into just that section). My advisors from my undergraduate days at McGill through my PhD at Stanford all contributed in different ways to my current interests. At McGill University, Mark Baldwin, my honors thesis supervisor, taught me that big, outside the head questions can be studied using precise social-cognitive methodologies. He turned me onto theories such as terror management theory, theories that excited me and deepened my passion for this field. At Stanford, I had two advisors, and they influenced my interests in complementary ways. Lee Ross emphasized, repeatedly, the value of a socially-relevant science. To Lee, psychological science is at its best when it is both consequential and counterintuitive — that is, when it can address something important or socially relevant, and do so in a way that makes us rethink our lay understanding of how the mind operates. I try very hard to keep this in mind when designing studies and developing ideas. My other advisor, John Jost, instilled in me the value of approaching studies in theory-driven ways. Capturing a wide set of phenomena through one theoretical lens is a goal I hold dear, and one I learned from John Jost. Beyond that, watching him develop system justification theory, and see it through despite the many challenges he was facing in those days, was very inspiring. It undoubtedly led to my interests in theory development and testing, which ultimately is the main working model of my lab.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have already mentioned my two most important mentors above: Lee Ross and John Jost. They are my most proximal and important methodological and theoretical influences. But my research has been influenced by many, many other psychological scientists — some of whom I have not met, and others that I know well and with whom I have collaborated. These people are so important to my success that I’d like to take the opportunity here to mention as many of them as I can. They include my first wave of PhD students — Danielle Gaucher, Kristin Laurin, Steven Shepherd, Justin Friesen, and Jillian Banfield — who guided me to new research territory and kept me consistently inspired, energized, and in love with my job; my senior colleagues at University of Waterloo — Steven Spencer, John Holmes, Mark Zanna, Mike Ross, and Joanne Wood — who helped make the transition from PhD student to Assistant Professor as smooth and fun as possible; the groundbreaking research of eminent psychological scientists Leon Festinger, Melvin Lerner, John Bargh, Susan Fiske, Arie Kruglanski, Mahzarin Banaji, Ellen Langer, James Sidanius, Brenda Major, and the team of Greenberg, Pyszczynsk, and Solomon, who have all laid the foundation for the domains in which I now work; and my more contemporary intellectual inspirations, Gráinne Fitzsimons, Mark Landau, Adam Galinsky, Travis Proulx, Steven Heine, Richard Eibach, Jaime Napier, Ian McGregor, Mitch Callan, Kees van den Bos, and Michael Inzlicht.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Two things, really. First, I have always been surrounded by very energetic and enthusiastic colleagues and collaborators. At Waterloo and now at Duke, I’ve had colleagues who are excited by their research, my research, and the field more generally. This makes it easy to stay productive and excited about my own research. The second thing is something I have noted before in a previous issue of the Observer. Lee Ross once told me that he thinks it is important to involve yourself in something “exciting” while in graduate school — that is, an idea or approach or perspective that you feel is new and different in some way. In looking back at my experience and those of my many successful peers, I see how much that advice has impacted me. Involving oneself in something that is “big” in the field or, better yet, is on the very edge of becoming “big” is an invaluable experience — or at least it was for me. I was fortunate to be around John Jost when he was developing a truly “big” idea.

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

Personally, it is very nice to receive the recognition. Looking at the list of previous and current award winners, I am honored to be grouped with them. I already love what I do so much that nothing could make me enjoy being a psychological scientist any more — I’m at ceiling on that dimension. But winning this award does suggest that at least some people also think what I’m doing is worthwhile, and that is very gratifying.