As winter dumped a few more feet of snow on the rest of the country, 1,500 psychologists took to their feet and headed to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s fourth annual conference, held in balmy Los Angeles, California, from February 6-8.
“The 2003 meeting was the best attended of our meetings,” reported Jim Blascovich, president of SPSP and professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Without exception, everyone I spoke with said it was the best meeting for personality and social psychologists, and it is their first choice of meetings to attend.”
One secret of SPSP’s success is its size. Although the conference’s symposia and poster sessions are limited to the topics of social and personality psychology, its arms are open to all practitioners of these fields-from wee undergrads on up. Indeed, students were amply awarded for their efforts at SPSP. In addition to travel and diversity awards, students were treated to poster awards, granted by secret judges at each of the six poster sessions. Students also enjoyed a graduate student roundtable and a workshop entitled “Alternatives to Academia” (which, not accidentally, ran simultaneous to a workshop entitled “Grants and Funding Opportunities”).
Alexandra Lesko, an undergraduate at Reed College, was one of several attendees presenting undergraduate thesis work, which she just completed with her advisor Jennifer Henderlong. Henderlong, a developmental psychologist, observed, “SPSP’s small size makes it a very useful forum for students, even undergraduate students, to present their research. It also seems like a very comfortable environment for them to approach others with similar interests.”
Speaking as a junior faculty member, Lisa M. Brown of the University of Florida concurred that SPSP “is a great opportunity for more junior people to show their work.”
The society also keeps its more established attendants entertained, with an abundance of both classic and cutting-edge research. Dan Gilbert pointed out that these two kinds of research are not mutually exclusive. “Social and personality psychology are among the least faddish of psychology’s areas. They have maintained a steady orbit around a core set of problems, so that while the research is cutting edge, the topics remain rather constant. So, new and exciting don’t necessarily go together in social and personality psychology. There are things that are new, things that are exciting, and things that are both.”
All the same, Batja Mesquita, a professor of social psychology at Wake Forest University, was impressed by SPSP’s offerings in new research territory: “SPSP’s content is expanding, so that the two areas that I’m interested in, cultural psychology and emotion, are increasingly represented. There’s a lot more culture, and emotion is almost a mainstream topic now.”
Other notable additions to the standard social/personality fare were pre-conferences on evolutionary psychology and social cognitive neuroscience, as well as symposia addressing such emerging areas as terrorism, heterosexism, and white identity.
Perhaps the most radical pushing of psychology’s envelope was offered by Kenneth Gergen, imminent gadfly and professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, whose invited talk “Theory as World Making” challenged researchers to examine the politics underlying their research, then to construct theories that reflect the politics they would like to see in the world.
Perhaps the two brightest conference highlights shone on the last day: evolutionary physiologist Jared Diamond’s keynote address and the post-conference party. Diamond’s address, “Why Do Societies Make Some Disastrous Decisions?” drew in part from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. In under two hours, Diamond described the 14 reasons why the world will collapse into cataclysm in less than 50 years if societies do not seriously change their environmental and political practices. After Diamond’s talk, many conference-goers let their hair down at Club SPSP, where D.J. Tracy Caldwell and the LA-based band Lustra took the edge off of the day.
SPSP 2004 will be held in Austin, Texas.