Shelley E. Taylor
University of California, Los Angeles
Shelley Taylor has been an outstanding social scientist and an important sculptor of thought and theory in the social sciences for three decades, particularly where social and health psychology intersect. Long interested in this interface, her work on illusions, on control, on patient behavior, and a variety of other topics has crystallized thinking about how human perception and cognition shape behavior and adjustment to illness or the threat of illness. She has been an uncommonly thoughtful and creative scientist and theorist who has advanced her discipline and made contributions that have enhanced important aspects of the world in which we live.
Beginning this work before the formal birth of health psychology, she was one of a handful of pioneers who appreciated the extensive potential that psychological research and theory had for biomedicine and patient care, disease management, prevention, and patient well-being. She also recognized the enormous relevance of rational and irrational factors long-familiar to social psychologists for understanding how people behave when they are ill or are exposed to illness. The work that came out of these conceptualizations has shaped social health psychology, influenced a generation of young scientists, and enriched the science and practice of health psychology.
Among her most important contributions have been systematic, theory-driven studies of adjustment to physical illness, with an emphasis on cancer and AIDS. Several of these studies were imaginative examinations of the factors affecting outcomes in these populations, ranging from predictors of gay men’s HIV risk-reduction behavior and of coping with cancer to suicide, bereavement, and adjustment among men with AIDS. At the same time she developed and investigated heuristic conceptualizations of social comparison among people coping with serious illness or the threat of serious illness, and conducted ground breaking research on the effects of positive illusions, considering the ways in which people manage emotional responses by distorting stressful aspects of their surroundings. Positive illusions appear to be useful approaches to coping that appear to buffer stress, enhance adjustment, and permit constrictive behaviors to continue independently. The frequency of use of these mental distortions and their effectiveness, particularly in the face of severe stressors, increases the importance of this work and of Dr. Taylor’s challenge to the general notion that realistic or accurate impressions of the world around us are central components of positive outlook, psychological adjustment, and good mental health. Positive biases emerge as predictors of survival among men with AIDS of immune function in HIV-positive gay men, of coping with cancer, and of general adjustment to adversity.
Many of her contributions have been more provocative than definitive, as is the case with her hypotheses about differences in stress responding among men and women or her description of the role of control and helplessness in distinctions between good patients and more difficult ones. She has initiated important dialogues with her work, caused students and colleagues alike to question old ways of thinking about people and the world they live in, push the envelope of conventional wisdom, and craft better, more heuristic conceptualizations of human social behavior. Throughout her career she has given form and substance to the meaning of science and what it means to be a scientist, a model for generations to come.