University of Sydney, Australia
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on ostracism, the act of being excluded and ignored. I literally get to ignore people for a living.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I come from a long line of ostracism-wielding, Italian women. No-one (and I say this with love) can ostracize quite like an Italian woman. It’s in our blood. Up until my early twenties, I thought that it was completely normal to sever all connections to someone (and their loved ones…and their pets), possibly for the next decade or so if they had crossed you in some way.
Then, in my honors year, I enrolled in Kipling Williams’ classes on ostracism and everything changed. It was the first time in my undergraduate degree that a topic had completed captivated my interest. I knew ostracism. I had extensive experience giving and receiving the silent treatment so to learn that it was a topic of investigation was a revelation. By the end of the first class, I knew I wanted to do a PhD in ostracism. In the first years of my PhD, there were only a few studies conducted in the area, which was completely thrilling. You could literally run any study you wanted and it was guaranteed to be innovative and to advance knowledge in the field. I felt like a kid in a candy store. And, to some extent, I still do.
Although ostracism research has really taken off over the last decade, there is still so much more to learn and that’s what motivates me to keep researching.
As an aside, doing a PhD in ostracism also helped my personal life; my mother eventually stopped giving me the silent treatment because she found it off-putting when I’d yell “You’re stunting my four fundamental human needs and possibly my immune functioning!”every time she started to ignore me.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have been exposed to many inspirational people, but the two that stand out are my PhD supervisors: Kipling Williams and Rick Richardson. Both have been extraordinarily influential in my life in completely different ways. Kip really kick-started my passion for ostracism and for research in general. He taught me that research could be fun and creative and that you shouldn’t be frightened to take a risk. Rick, on the other hand, managed to wrangle all my hyperactive energy and teach me the importance of focus, dedication, and methodological rigor. Although Rick isn’t a social psychologist (he only crossed over to the ‘dark side’ to supervise the latter half of my PhD), he represents the tenacious, hard-working, and dedicated scientist that I want to be.
I’ve also been very lucky to have met many researchers who have been very generous with their time and advice: Joe Forgas, Bill von Hippel, Patricia Devine, Ladd Wheeler, Lloyd Ren Sloan, Stephen Harkins, Norbert Kerr, and Mark Leary, to name a few.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
What little success I have had is based on having brilliant collaborators, excellent mentors, a very supportive family and partner, and a lot of perseverance (though, I am more than aware that I still have a long way to go before I attain world domination).
What’s your future research agenda?
For me, one of the most fulfilling aspects of research is actually building new methods and paradigms to explore ostracism. My honors student, Rani Goodacre, and I recently devised the ‘O-Cam’ paradigm (see http://www.psych.usyd.edu.au/research/ostracism/ for a demonstration of the paradigm. Username: guest; Password: Bach) which is a way of examining face-to-face ostracism without confederates.
We’re currently playing with new ways of using O-Cam to explore aspects of ostracism that weren’t able to be examined using pre-existing paradigms. I’m also developing different strategies to ameliorate the aversive effects of ostracism because, to me, the biggest question in ostracism research is: how can you help someone recover from the aversive effects of exclusion? Recently, I’ve also started a new collaborative project that explores factors that lead to risky driving and road rage.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientist? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
I’d probably start by telling them to pursue a less stressful career like bomb defusing. And if that doesn’t scare them off, I’d probably tell them to actively engage in any opportunity for collaboration, to reward themselves for every success (no matter how small), to develop a thick, rhino-type skin, and to persevere, no matter what. Just because I study ostracism and rejection doesn’t mean that I find getting a paper rejected — for the seventh time — any easier to handle. But what makes the rejection slightly less pointy is that I am researching a topic that I love with a great bunch of collaborators, and finding answers to questions that I personally find fascinating.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Zadro, L., Williams, K. D., & Richardson, R. (2003). How Low Can You Go? Ostracism By A Computer Is Sufficient to Lower Self-Reported Levels of Belonging, Control, Self-Esteem, and Meaningful Existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 560-567.
In this paper, we had predicted that being ostracized by a human would be more aversive than being ostracized by a computer. I can still remember walking up to Kip’s office and telling him that the results were in the opposite direction. And I can still remember how annoyed I was when he told me to run the study again — and again — to make sure. But the results were bullet-proof. It was the first time that I truly realized that getting the opposite of what you predicted could actually be more interesting than getting what you wanted.