2019 Janet Taylor Spence Award
Please briefly describe your research interests.
I am fascinated by how tribalism shapes people’s thoughts, emotions, brains, and behaviors. Specifically, I study how processes such as empathy, cooperation, and communication break down when the social context shifts from “me and you” to “us and them.” I’m equally interested in the behavioral consequences when these processes break down, including discrimination, conflict, and aggression. My approach integrates classic and contemporary theories of intergroup relations with cognitive neuroscience and computational approaches to discover, for example, how people overcome their aversion to harm in order to hurt out-group members, how the mind and brain represent “us” and “them,” and how we should go about reducing intergroup bias and conflict.
What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
An overwhelming amount of evidence indicates that humans are, by default, cooperative, moral, and deeply averse to harming others. And yet, by some counts, over more than 200 million civilians have been killed in acts of genocide, war, and other forms of group conflict over the last century alone. How do we reconcile humanity’s tendency toward good with its capacity for the unspeakable? Since the age of 10, when my parents began housing a series of family members seeking asylum from the Yugoslav wars, I have understood that the line between these competing impulses is far dimmer than most people are willing to entertain. As a social psychologist, I have discovered that we are often at our worst in service of being good group members. Intergroup dynamics fundamentally reshape people’s views of what is acceptable or fair and therefore represents a critical boundary condition on our most cherished theories of morality and justice. This is why I use intergroup contexts as a lens to understand when people are good, when they are bad, and why. (Also an important event in my research trajectory: Paris Hilton getting sent to jail for a DUI. Come talk to me about this one at the APS Annual Convention.)
Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
I am incredibly proud of the research program and culture my lab members and I have built together and am forever indebted to the students and postdoctoral scholars who took a chance on working with me as I was just starting out. I am in awe of their unwavering dedication to “getting it right,” to best practices for open science, and to mentoring underrepresented minority students. One of the best aspects of this job is that your day-to-day experience is what you make it. My work doesn’t feel like work because it has fostered an environment rife with intellectual generosity, scientific rigor, and respect and compassion for one another. With regard to projects in the lab, I’m most excited about our ongoing work, some of which we’ll be sharing at the APS Annual Convention. Come check out our symposia!
What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
I realize in hindsight how important it has been for me to be mentored by brilliant women — my tribe of academic Amazons. My undergraduate advisor, Jannay Morrow, was the first person to see that I was meant to be a social psychologist and so set me on my course. I don’t know how to begin to describe the impact that my graduate advisor, Susan Fiske, has had on my career except to say I wouldn’t have one without her. Come to think of it, I also wouldn’t have met my husband (Susan introduced and eventually married us), and consequently I wouldn’t have my son, so second only to my parents, Susan is responsible for my life as I know it now. I would do anything for her. My postdoctoral advisor, Rebecca Saxe, gave me a model of how to command the respect of a scientific audience early in one’s career and taught me that I will never love any job more than I love my family. Finally, my faculty mentor, Mahzarin Banaji, has pushed me more than anyone to ask whether what I really care about is reflected in my work and the impact I’m having on our field. If I am even the smallest fraction to my mentees what this tribe has been to me I will count my career a success.
I have benefited tremendously from the support of many other mentors, both in graduate school — Joan Girgus, Uri Hasson, Betsy Levy Paluck — and as faculty — Randy Buckner, Jason Mitchell, Laurie Santos, Josh Greene, Dan Gilbert, Matt Nock, among others. Each of these people have given me crucial guidance at challenging times in my career. I’d still be spinning my wheels without them.
Perhaps the greatest privilege of this job is thinking and writing with my brilliant friends. Thank you Jay Van Bavel, Emile Bruneau, Anna Jenkins, Jamil Zaki, Jon Freeman, Brendan Gaesser, Fiery Cushman, Leah Somerville, Sam Gershman, Kristen Lindquist, Kurt Gray, and Adam Waytz for making me a better scientist, advisor, colleague, writer, and person.
Finally, I am most grateful for my favorite psychologist, Carey Morewedge, with whom I have a Psychological Science paper and a son. (Get yourself a partner than can do both.) I would be a shadow of the academic and person I am without him and our son, Ivan.
What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
As I noted above I am excited about all of the ongoing work in the lab, but one topic about which I am incredibly passionate is immigration. The recent resurgence in criminalized characterizations of immigrants fills me with dread, not only on behalf of immigrants and refugees but also because of what it signals more broadly about our sociopolitical climate. My collaborators and I are currently combining classic models of intergroup relations and social cognition with representational similarity analyses to understand how different kinds of narratives impact US residents’ latent psychological representations of different immigrant groups and how these representations relate to residents’ immigration policy preferences. I’m very excited to share this work at APS, as well.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
Personally, this award signals that it is time for me to reflect on everything my parents and partner have sacrificed to give me the opportunities that have resulted in the career and life I have now. I have a lot of gratitude to express. Professionally, this award is a vindication. I am a woman, immigrant, and mom in STEM, with a potty mouth and a love of fashion. I’ve often felt out of place in academia. Dan Gilbert shared with me that he thinks Dr. Spence would have described me as a “pistol.” I intend to live up to that description.