Kristina Olson

Kristina Olson

Yale University, USA

What does your research focus on?

My research sits at the intersection of social and developmental psychology, exploring the emergence and development of social cognition. My lab focuses on three primary areas: (1) the emergence and development of social group attitudes; (2) “strategic pro-sociality,” or the ways in which children are more or less helpful or generous in different contexts; and (3) children’s understanding of ideas and intellectual property.

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

The first area that drew me in to experimental psychology was social cognition. I was attracted to the topics historically studied in social psychology and to the precision of modern experimental designs. However, I found myself constantly wondering where these cognitions and behaviors came from and how understanding their emergence might allow us to better understand the phenomena themselves. The possibility of really connecting social and developmental psychology – borrowing methods and theories from both fields and learning from experts in both areas — felt like an exciting place for me to make a contribution.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I have been incredibly fortunate in having tremendous mentors all the way along my path. My decision to want to become an experimental psychologist was largely attributable to a memorable research methods course in college taught by Jeff Zacks, in which I was pushed to design my own study and discover my love of data. My decision to pursue research as a career was solidified because of experiences working in the labs of Roddy Roediger and Alan Lambert who to this day continue to serve as mentors. In graduate school I learned to actually become an experimental psychologist from my advisor, Mahzarin Banaji. She, Liz Spelke, and Carol Dweck served as mentors throughout graduate school and continue to do so today. Finally, I have been fortunate to have landed in a department surrounded by senior faculty who routinely serve as mentors and models of how to be a successful experimental psychologist.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

Any success I have had in the field is attributable to my mentors, close collaborators, and phenomenal students who consistently make me become a better scientist. I have also been lucky to have arrived at the intersection of social and developmental psychology at a time when many peers have as well. We’ve been able to create a community of colleagues who are working together and pushing one another to solve some of the most interesting and vexing questions about the development and emergence of social cognition.

What’s your future research agenda?

One part of my future research agenda will involve increasing our nearly non-existent knowledge of how people think about ideas and apply concepts of ownership to ideas. Some of the most fascinating questions about science itself have to do with how new ideas emerge, the contexts that promote new idea development, and how we harness old ideas to create new ones. I’m excited to learn how people come to think about their own and others’ ideas and to get others excited about these under-studied questions. A second part of my research agenda will focus on questions about the selective nature of pro-social behaviors such as helping and sharing. I’m interested in when and why people are more or less generous in different contexts, such as when they are being observed or when they are interacting with an unfamiliar person. Finally, I plan to continue to my research in the U.S. and South Africa aimed at understanding the role that perceptions of group differences in status play in the emergence and development of social group attitudes.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

My advice is to recognize that there are lots of different ways to succeed in science and that you have to find the path that works for you. I often hear people talk about “the way” to success as if there’s one right path, but when I look at the folks I most admire in the field, I see that they have all succeeded in unique ways that maximized their strengths and allowed them to spend more time on the parts of this job that pulled them to this career in the first place. It takes lots of different kinds of people and approaches to make the field work, and I encourage graduate students to find the path that works for them. I’d also say it takes a lot of hard work, determination, and a bit of luck to stay in this field and that you have to surround yourself with a group of people who can both help get you through the frustrations but also help you celebrate your successes.

What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

At the moment, I’m most excited about a recently published paper that I wrote with my graduate student, Alex Shaw.

Olson, K. R., & Shaw, A. (2011). “No fair, copycat!”: What children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science, 14, 431-439.

This paper is important to me because it represents a milestone in my own career (it’s my first paper with my own graduate student) and because it’s the first paper in a new line of work. Examining children’s understanding of ideas and intellectual property is a new direction in my lab and in the field more generally. Questions about what counts as a unique idea, what it means to own an idea, and why we care so much about ideas are thoroughly unanswered questions in psychology, yet they are critically important and extremely timely in the world outside the lab.

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