Columbia University, USA
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on two distinct areas of inquiry. First, I examine how the mind manages itself, with a particular focus on understanding how people intuitively decide where to channel their attention, how deeply to process information, and when to shift their attention elsewhere. My second line of research is devoted to exploring one key task that occupies, and indeed requires, much of human attention: understanding other people. In this area, I document and analyze the tactics that people use to understand and explain the attitudes and behavior of others. I explore these questions using both traditional behavioral approaches and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I’m drawn to the first line of work because it is important and under-studied. Psychologists have made progress explaining how people shift their attention among things in the external environment but know comparatively little about how internal sources of information (e.g., memories of past happenings, thoughts of impending future events, etc) capture attention. Mapping this new territory is exciting, addressing questions such as “Why does the mind distract itself?” and “How do unfulfilled goals hijack our attention?” Some of the work I do on this topic uses traditional behavioral techniques; other questions simply cannot be asked without brain imaging. By strategically (and selectively) using brain-imaging studies to test hypotheses developed through behavioral work, my research adds a new dimension to the scope of this psychological inquiry. At my core, I am a basic scientist. This line of work permits me to explore how something works but has potential to produce prescriptions, which is increasingly important to me.
With respect to my second line of research, fundamentally, I am fascinated by people. Many social psychologists who study social perception focus on describing how individuals err when analyzing the actions of others. By contrast, my work examines the strategies that perceivers use to effectively infer other people’s traits, intentions and beliefs so that they can understand and predict behavior, and strategically align their own actions to those observations. What engages me so deeply in this work is that although social interactions are incredibly complex, people seem to manage them with ease and skill.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
My undergraduate mentor, Mikki Hebl, an applied psychologist with an expertise in organizations and discrimination at Rice, inspired countless students to pursue careers as psychologists. I was very close to my PhD advisor, Neil Macrae, a social cognitive psychologist and pioneer in bringing brain imaging to bear on psychological research. He taught me science. Dartmouth was a wonderful place to pursue a graduate degree. It had a wonderfully supportive culture with a tightly knit group of faculty and students who were deeply engaged in their scientific inquiry. I benefited from working closely with several faculty, including Todd Heatherton, Jack Van Horn, and Bill Kelley, and from having a wonderful cohort of peers. I think people underestimate how much learning happens through social osmosis. My post-doctoral advisor, Moshe Bar, to this day continues to be a key source of support. My current colleagues are also critical to the evolution of my work.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
Three things. First, my discipline and persistence. Second, having collaborators who both share my enthusiasm and have complementary skills. Third, “luck” or being in the right place at the right time. The number of opportunities I’ve happened upon is dizzying. I honestly think that if you can manage the first thing – discipline and persistence – opportunities will present themselves. French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur put it best when he said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”
What’s your future research agenda?
Recently, my interest in understanding how people intuitively gauge where to channel their attention has been extended to the general area of decision-making. The central focus of this line of work is identifying factors that encourage people to incur search and opportunity costs by prolonging choice deliberation (instead of settling on sufficient solutions and shifting their attention to other pressing matters). This work has the potential for results with broad impact in many areas of practice.
Any advice for even younger psychologists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your experiments. Graduate school teaches you how to think critically, which is obviously foundational. The downside of this training is that it tends to foster pessimism about ideas and the feasibility of testing them. With each year, it gets easier to talk yourself out of pursuing important questions because you can’t seem to nail down a flawless experimental design. My view is that no experiment is ever perfect; it takes a set of studies to make a convincing theoretical point. Sometimes you have to pull the trigger and give it a whirl. And even if a study doesn’t work as you expected, you can learn something from the outcome and then take a different approach.
Please write a sentence or two about the publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career. As challenging as it may be, please limit it to one publication.
I am most proud of “Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought”, which was published in Science in 2007, and was adapted from my dissertation. This article demonstrated that mind-wandering is associated with activity in a region of the brain that is typically active when the brain is “at rest.” Not everyone agrees with my interpretation of the results, of course, but I suppose that’s how science works, and how young scholars become part of the scientific community. I was thrilled to have the piece accepted at such a prestigious journal. I am proud of this paper because the experimental design was creative and rigorous and the results, therefore, compelling. For these particular experiments, I had to train research participants for weeks, measure their behavior in different situations, collect individual difference measures and scan their brains. It was logistically complex but it was well worth the effort. We spend so much time editing and revising our manuscripts. Sometimes I think we need to channel some of that energy into developing thoughtful experimental designs, demonstrating that the data we’ve collected is reliable and maximizing the external validity of the results.