2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Jason Mitchell

Harvard University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

Over the past several years, our work has focused on the question of how humans understand other minds. Social behavior depends critically on an ability to make rapid and accurate sense of the mental states of others ¾ often on the basis of limited clues about the thoughts, feelings, and dispositions they comprise. Understanding how humans meet these challenges has long been the central goal of social psychology. In the past 15 years, researchers have begun to address these questions in fundamentally new ways, by bringing to bear empirical techniques and conceptual advances from the neurosciences to inform a new understanding of the social mind. As part of this budding enterprise of “social neuroscience,” the main thrust of our research employs functional neuroimaging to examine the cognitive processes that support human social capacities.

This work has helped reveal two main insights about the nature of social cognition: first, that social thought is distinct from other forms of cognition and, second, that one way to understand the minds of others is by simulated reference to one’s own mental states.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

My undergraduate advisor was Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist with a strong interest in cognition. My graduate advisor was Dan Schacter, a cognitive neuroscientist. I always think of my interest in social neuroscience as their intellectual love child.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Mahzarin Banaji, Neil Macrae, Dan Schacter, Dan Gilbert, Todd Heatherton, Lila Davachi, and Anthony Wagner.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I’ve never run the control experiment to find out. My guess is that I was just lucky enough to work with some of the best researchers in both social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

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

Personally, the Spence Award is a great honor, and I’m thrilled to be in the company of such amazing researchers.