2015 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Jessica K. Witt

Colorado State University


What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My research demonstrates that spatial vision is biased by action. Specifically, the way people perceive the spatial layout of the environment is influenced by their ability to act. Softball players who are hitting better than others see the ball as bigger. Objects that have been brought within reach using a reach-extending tool look closer than those brought within reach by other means. Balls appear faster when they are more difficult to catch than when they are easy to catch. I have found these action-specific effects in a range of perceptual properties such as distance, size, slant, shape, height, and speed, and using a variety of perceptual measures including verbal reports, visual matching tasks, action-based measures, and indirect measures. This body of research challenges the notion that vision is independent of action. Even when the optical information is the same, target objects look different depending on the perceiver’s intentions and abilities.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

Originally a computer science major, I was captivated by a course in artificial intelligence, which led me to take several courses on cognitive psychology and cognitive science. Then, two students from Denny Proffitt’s lab gave job talks at Smith College, and I became hooked on perception–action research. My love for this research is driven, in part, by my own experiences as a collegiate, national, and international athlete. I find my mental processes to be deeply connected to the movements and functioning of my body. These two facets of my life — academia and athletics — continue to fuel each other and further advance my interest in embodiment and perception–action research.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have benefited from the mentorship of so many people throughout my career. My graduate advisor, Denny Proffitt, had an enormous influence on me both professionally and personally, and I would not be the person I am today without him. Bill (William) Epstein pushed me with the kind of frank honesty that hurts but that I also value, while Dan Willingham helped rebuild my confidence. My colleagues Jim Nairne and Robert Proctor at Purdue University helped me navigate the tumultuous waters I faced during my first years as a professor as I continued to do controversial research that brought criticisms from colleagues near and far. I would not love my job as much as I do today without all the support I received from these wonderful mentors.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Over the course of my young career, I have benefited from a willingness to listen to and react to my biggest critics. This has presented many challenges to my research and, at times, my confidence. However, in every instance, these challenges made me a stronger researcher and pushed my boundaries as I continued to make significant contributions to the field. In addition, I attribute much of my success to my resilience to setbacks in my own research. Null and unexpected results can be quite discouraging and lead to much self-doubt, but I have been able to persevere through these moments of insecurity. In fact, many of my favorite findings were driven by initial results that did not meet my expectations.

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

Winning this award is a humbling experience. I started college as a “dumb jock” who benefited from a soccer coach who had enormous sway with admissions. When my father saw my name listed under those who had achieved highest honors with their senior research, his initial reaction was surprise that there was another student named Jessica Kate Witt. For my father to watch me receive an award from an organization as incredible as APS in New York City means so much to me. On a professional level, I am enormously grateful to have my efforts and my research field be recognized and valued by psychology’s leading association.