Ethan Kross

University of Michigan

What does your research focus on?

Although the emotions we experience usually serve an adaptive function, sometimes they take hold of us in ways that are harmful, interfering with how we ideally want to think, feel, and behave. These are the situations that fascinate me. My research aims to illuminate how people can effectively control their emotions under such circumstances.

What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?

When I was an undergraduate, I learned about a paradox in the literature on self-reflection and coping. Whereas many studies indicated that it was helpful for people to “work through” their negative experiences, other studies indicated that people’s attempts to do this often led them to ruminate and feel worse. Putting these findings together, the challenge that emerged was to understand how people can reflect on negative experience adaptively. This basic question triggered my broader interest in self-control.

Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?

As an undergraduate, my conversations with Robert DeRubeis, David Williams, and Marty Seligman at University of Pennsylvania helped me discover my passion for psychology.

I met my two greatest influences at Columbia, where I earned my PhD. Walter Mischel took me under his wing when I arrived. He was, and continues to be, all that I could have hoped for in a mentor. From day one he encouraged me to ask “big questions” that have the potential to change the way we think about phenomena. The “question” always mattered most to Walter. To the extent that using tools from different level of analysis was useful for understanding one’s question, Walter fearlessly embraced doing so as I do now as well.

My other greatest influence was Ozlem Ayduk. Ozlem was completing the final year of her post doc when I started graduate school. We immediately began working together when I arrived, and we haven’t stopped. We think about problems just differently enough to make our partnership profitable (and a lot of fun). Ozlem taught me about the ins and outs of performing research and working in academia. She’s been my role model from the beginning.

I was fortunate to work with several other people at Columbia, including Geraldine Downey, Kevin Ochsner, Ed Smith, Tor Wager, Rudy Mendoza Denton and Tory Higgins. Each of them, in his or her own way, powerfully shaped the way I think about research.

Fortunately, mentoring doesn’t end when you leave graduate school. My current colleagues and collaborators continue to influence my thinking. In this regard, John Jonides, Oscar Ybarra, Phoebe Ellsworth, Shinobu Kitayama, Dick Nisbett, Norbert Schwarz, Patty Deldin, Jason Moser, Stephanie Carlson, Rudy Mendoza Denton and Angela Duckworth have been particularly influential. My students have also been a tremendous source of stimulation.

What’s your future research agenda?

We still have a lot to learn about the basic mechanisms that underlie self-control, how those mechanisms develop, and how knowledge of them can be used to enhance self-control in daily life. My students and I are also exploring whether online social networks can be harnessed to facilitate self-control. I’m also curious about how to insulate people against the myriad biases that characterize human reasoning.

What publication are you most proud of?

Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2011). Making meaning out of negative experiences by self-distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 187–191.

This paper summarizes about 10 years of research that Ozlem Ayduk and I (along with others) performed to shed light on the mechanisms that distinguish adaptive versus maladaptive forms of self-reflection. Working on the paper was fun because it provided us with an opportunity to step back and think about what we had learned about this issue, and what questions remained unanswered.

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