University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
What is the focus of your award-winning research?
What do sexual objectification, psychopathy, religious belief, and the creepiness of humanoid robots all have in common? The answer is mind perception. How we see the minds of others can explain an incredible diversity of psychological phenomena, and even has the potential to unify moral judgments. Not only do questions of rights and responsibilities rest upon perceived mental capacities, but moral cognition is grounded in an implicit template of two perceived minds — an intentional agent harming a suffering patient.
My model of “dyadic morality” suggests that all immoral acts — even those that appear objectively agentless or harmless — are nevertheless perceived to involve a complete dyad of intentional harm. This phenomenon of “dyadic completion” explains why people see divine vengeance in natural disasters and harm to children in homosexuality. Dyadic morality also suggests the phenomenon of “moral typecasting” — the tendency to cast individuals into the role of either intentional agents or suffering patients. Moral typecasting explains why victims escape blame and why we ignore the pain of heroes.
Dyadic morality suggests a common cognitive template unifying cultural diversity in morality. Moral concerns may be descriptively different across cultures, but all involve perceived harm, whether to the body, group, or soul. Other lab research explores dynamic social phenomena, including paying-it-forward behavior, failures of Facebook activism, and agent-based models of group genesis.
How did you develop an interest in this area?
After a night stranded in the Canadian wilderness, stalked by lynx, psychology seemed better than my initial college major of geophysics. Although psychology afforded fewer helicopter rescues, the challenge of understanding subjective experience is exhilarating enough. Initially I was drawn to decision making and demonstrations of mental irrationality, reading the work of Robyn Dawes and Daniel Kahneman. If the mind faltered at problems of probability and value — for which there are objective answers — I wondered what hope there was for more subjective phenomena such as religion, morality, and free will. These interests led me to the work of Dan Wegner.
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
Any success I have in psychological science is owed to [the late] Dan Wegner; he was a colossus in the field and I am grateful to work in his shadow. Dan’s wit and vision were unparalleled, as was his ability to combine interesting real-world phenomena with clever psychological theories. I could never thank him enough for his mentorship, and will unfortunately never get the chance to try.
I must also thank people across four great institutions. At Waterloo, Phil Merikle, Derek Koehler, Erik Woody, Joanne Wood, and John Holmes were instrumental in getting me started in psychology. At Harvard, I was generously mentored by Dan Wegner, but also Carey Morewedge, Wendy Mendes, Josh Greene, Dan Gilbert, Nick Epley, and Mike Norton. At Maryland, the advice of Arie Kruglanski and Michele Gelfand were indispensable. At UNC, I am grateful for mentors Barb Fredrickson, Keith Payne, and Paschal Sheeran. I am also thankful to Kristen Lindquist and Lisa Barrett for showing me the power of constructionism. Finally, I must acknowledge the sweeping influence of my friends, coauthors, and students, who consistently help turn my mediocre ideas into better ones.
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
I find failure to be a powerful motivator. My very first science project was in 4th grade, when I assessed “How long does cereal float?” (This was my mom’s idea.) Although I don’t remember the results, I do remember the taste of tears as the wind tore apart my poster on the way to school. I also remember my first 15 studies in graduate school — all complete failures. Call it dissonance, but each failure strengthened my resolve.
My training at Waterloo and Harvard, especially the mentorship of Dan Wegner, also contributed to my success. Dan encouraged me to draw ideas from everyday life instead of journal articles and to read widely, including philosophy, physics, and math; Borges, Asimov, and Huxley. He taught me how to make sense of the broader patterns of the mind by taking a step back and blurring my eyes a bit.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
It is an honor to be in the company of such distinguished scientists, especially in the name of Dr. Spence. I know Dan would be proud.