2015 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Jay J. Van Bavel

New York University


What is the focus of your award-winning research?

Our research examines how collective concerns — group identities, moral values, and political beliefs — alter people’s perceptions and evaluations of the world around them. We have found that even the most minimal group identities can profoundly influence cognition, shaping everything from our automatic evaluations of others to our perceptions of basic physical properties.

My early work examined how simply assigning people to an arbitrary social group was sufficient to alter face processing and override their automatic racial biases. More recently, we have examined how group identities alter mind perception (e.g., how much humanness is required in a face for it to be perceived as having a mind?), distance judgments (e.g., do people perceive threatening outgroups as too close for comfort?), and basic sensation (e.g., might our group identities shape our senses of smell and taste?) The core theme that emerges across our work is that human cognition is deeply social and highly dynamic.

We take a social neuroscience approach to these issues, blending theory and methods from social psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Studying these issues across multiple levels of analysis offers the promise of more general, process-oriented theories of human cognition and, ultimately, more effective interventions for social issues.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I have been drawn to group dynamics for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the fact that a flip of a coin during a friendly game of football or hockey could transform close friends into bitter enemies. This interest evolved as I was exposed to issues of social justice, and it led me to take a summer job with an organization that fought racism in the education system. I spent countless hours talking about these issues with high school students.

As a first-generation college student, I was slow to catch on to the research mission of universities. But something inside me clicked when I realized that I could study these issues through the lens of psychological science. In a fortunate twist of fate, I made friends with Mike Wohl, and he introduced me to the field of social psychology. My undergraduate mentors, Jeff Schimel and Kim Noels, furnished my passion for studying these issues in a sociocultural context. Looking back, this was probably one of the biggest turning points in my life.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Ken and Karen Dion served as my mentors during my first year at the University of Toronto. I’ll never forget my very first day of graduate school, when Ken told me that our fates were forever intertwined and that every success of mine was a success of his (and vice versa)—that lesson has permeated all of my collaborations. Tragically, Ken passed away after my first year of graduate school, and Wil Cunningham took me under his wing. Wil’s infectious enthusiasm, openness to new ideas, and commitment to scientific rigor are continuous sources of inspiration for me. Our fates remain intertwined to this day.

I followed Wil to Ohio State University for the last 2 years of my PhD, and I had to complete most of my degree requirements (e.g., dissertation proposal, orals) in conference hotel lobbies. It was the only place I could round up my dissertation committee (Jordan Peterson, Alison Chasteen, Adam Anderson, and later Mickey Inzlicht). At Ohio State, I was able to learn from several of my idols, including Marilynn Brewer, Russ Fazio, Julian Thayer, and Rich Petty. I was incredibly fortunate to land a faculty position at New York University, and it has been thrilling (and humbling) to work closely with scientists like John Jost, Liz Phelps, and Dave Amodio and receive regular support and advice from my senior colleagues.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Science is a collective endeavor, and I have benefitted immeasurably from the counsel of wise mentors, brilliant collaborators, and talented students. I took the desk next to Dominic Packer on my first day of graduate school. After he overcame his initial aversion to my goalie equipment (which I stored in our office), we became the best of friends and collaborators. I have also had the benefit of several friends, lab mates, and colleagues who have given me honest advice and constructive criticism at every step. In particular, I have a cohort of seriously talented junior faculty at NYU and we have grown up together over the past few years.

Since arriving at NYU, I have had a parade of creative young scientists in my lab. Tobias Brosch, Jenny Xiao, and Jill Swencionis initially joined the lab and helped establish a culture of excellence and congeniality that carries on to this day. At this point, the majority of my papers are the product of talented PhD students or postdocs (see recent papers by Ana Gantman, Amy Krosch, Leor Hackel, Hannah Nam, and Oriel FeldmanHall). Working with such passionate students is by far my favorite part of the job. I have to work incredibly hard just to keep up with them.

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

This award embodies my deepest values as a scientist — it is hard to imagine a greater honor. As a social psychologist, this award has also encouraged me to reflect on all the people who have offered support, shaped my thinking, or contributed to my work in some way. The fact that I have never published a sole author paper is a testament to the fact that nothing I have done can be fully attributed to me. I have mentioned dozens of people here, and yet this only scratches the surface.

People love the narrative of the heroic individual scientist, but the most groundbreaking science these days is often the product of large, interdisciplinary teams. We need to move beyond this outdated paradigm and find ways to recognize great research groups and the selfless individuals who work behind the scenes to promote the success of others. In my own small way, I hope that mentoring the next generation of scientists will help pay forward the support that I have received along my own journey. I want to challenge and support them to make transformative contributions to the field.