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Research Interests

Social Judgment

Social judgments are fascinating to me. Especially interesting is the notion that two people can use the same information about a person and come to very different conclusions about that person. Bill Clinton is a good example of this - there are some folks who think that Clinton is the greatest American president since George Washington, and others who see Clinton as a soulless, untrustworthy manipulator. How can two people use exactly the same data base come to such opposing conclusions about Bill?

My fascination with this area started pretty early on. I'm a very introverted guy - and when I was a kid I was very much the silent type who avoided social contact. My reticence sometimes led people to unusual inferences about me (the film "Being There" is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon). Two examples serve to illustrate the point.

Story 1: I was once publicly accused of being "the ringleader" of the troublemakers in my grade school class by a priest who was visiting our class. He made the accusation simply because I failed to answer one of his questions. In truth, I was daydreaming and had absolutely no idea of what his question was (think of Calvin's flights of fancy from the old [and dearly missed] Calvin and Hobbes comic strip).

Story 2: When I was young, I failed to seek out the company of the opposite sex. In fact, my father tried to bribe me to take a particular girl to the senior prom (the bribe was more attractive than the girl). Given such behavior, my father came to the conclusion that I was gay (which, I'm sure, is a surprise to my wife). In this case, my father rather misinterpreted my reticence, my dislike of social situations and my dislike of formal dress, don't you think?

Needless to say, when I got to college and actually found out that people studied this stuff (e.g., how we make attributions about the personalities of others) I was hooked.

My most recent work in the area has focused on two issues. The first of these is the detection of spontaneous trait inferences. Two key questions are: (1) when do we make inferences about the personality traits that others possess and (2) how can we detect those inferences without asking people to directly report them? The second issue that I have pursued concerns why there are negativity biases (and sometimes positivity biases) in trait judgments. I have argued (and tried to show) that these effects are caused by perceptions of the diagnosticity of information. Many of my colleagues believe that these effects are caused by motivational or emotional mechanisms. It has been a lovely debate, and it continues.

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Social Memory

I grew up with the topic of person memory - it was one of the original "hot topics" in social cognition, so I spent a lot of time reading about person memory in my graduate school days, when social cognition was bursting onto the scene. My interests in this area have also been stimulated by my recent move from a regional campus in the Ohio State system (Newark) to Northern Illinois University. NIU is not too far from Chicago, where I grew up, so I have been encountering a lot of people who have some knowledge of my past. Some of the things that these folks remember are just weird. For example, the husband of one of my fellow faculty members is from my old neighborhood, and he reported that his mother remembered me as a boy who always carried his umbrella to school - the prototypic dweeb, if you ask me. Actually, I always remember breaking the damn umbrellas when I would use them as a baseball bat to hit rocks, but that's another story.

So, in any case, my attention has begun to focus on memory for others' behaviors. One of my forays into this area pursues the old person memory paradigm. I have become increasingly skeptical of the old network explanations that were proffered for incongruity effects in recall that emerged in some of the early research examining how trait expectancies influence behavior recall. I have a series of studies in mind that pursues some ideas that I have for why the incongruity effect emerges. Part of my thinking revolves around reconciling the incongruity effect that emerges in the trait expectancy literature with the congruity effect that emerges when stereotypes provide the expectancies.

I also have some interests in more naturalistic assessments of memory for another person - both the behaviors that a person engaged in and when those behaviors were performed. For these studies we often have people keep diaries of the behaviors of a third party. They provide ratings of the behaviors both at the time the event occurred and at the time we give them a memory test. At the time of test we assess memory for the event and memory for when the event occurred. We then try to use the ratings to figure out which characteristics of each behavior (such as its unusualness) and which processes instigated by the behavior (such as how often it has been rehearsed) predict memory and dating accuracy.

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Autobiographical Memory

My interests in autobiographical memory were sparked when I spent a year at a temporary faculty member at Kansas State University. While there I met Chuck Thompson, who was doing work in autobiographical memory. It seemed like it was fun work to do - and it is! Chuck's methodology was to have people record events in diaries and to try to predict the event's memorability and the accuracy of attempts to place the events in time from variables such as the event's valence and extremity. Plus, some of the entries in the diaries were a hell of a lot of fun to read - you'd be amazed at some of the things that got included in the diaries despite our pleas to participants to be discreet.

My recent research in this area has focused on three topics. One of them is peoples' ability to place events in time - just how does one know when one took that vacation trip to the Grand Canyon? There are a lot of reconstructive processes that need to take place to estimate when. However, I have also recently speculated that people might have a rough sense of when that is derived from the self. People can make a quick and dirty comparison of "the self-as-I-am-now" to "the self-as-I-was-then" and come up with a rough age for an event. This self-based mechanism also suggests that this self-based sense of time is not constant: Events should seem older after periods of tumultuous change in one's life than after periods of quiescence.

A second set of studies has explored how our memories make us feel. Our research team has found evidence (as have other teams ) that the sting of negative events dissipates with time - that failed relationship that crushed us at age 16 no longer feels bad when it is remembered at age 35. However, in contrast to research by others, our team has explored similar effects for recalled positive events. We found that the positive glow of the good events in our lives tends to remain: One still feels good about that game winning home run that one hit in little league, even 30 years after the event. Our future research in this area will try to gain insight into the mechanisms underlying this effect. For example, one idea is that talking about events has different effects on the emotions associated with negative and positive events - it helps the sting go away for the bad stuff, but helps the pleasure remain for the good stuff.

A third set of studies focuses more generally on the role that communication has in autobiographical memory. As is obvious from my descriptions of research, people communicate the events in their lives to others. Recent data that our team has collected suggests that such communications may be the most frequently used form of event rehearsal. That is, people may talk to others about the events in their lives more than they think about those events. We are just starting to think about studies that examine the effects of these communications. There are some obvious effects that might emerge (the more one talks about the event, the more likely one is to remember the event) and some less obvious ones (the more one talks about the event, the more likely it is that recall of some event details might dissipate or become distorted).

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The Self

I have two main lines of work in this area. The first indulges my interest in biology. My colleague, Constantine Sedikides, and I have written a number of book chapters that try to place the self in evolutionary context. We argued that the development of a "self" in humans might be driven by evolutionary pressures deriving from the need to deal with a flexible social system. Our argument is that humans' relatively advanced ability to use symbolic thought was applied to the problem of managing social interactions with others. Logically, the self is a necessary component of a symbolic representational system that is concerned with the problem of interacting with others. We haven't yet generated any testable research from these ideas, but such tests may be coming soon.

A second interest in the area concerns self-judgment. Social psychologists have long wondered whether the kinds of theories and principles that apply to how people think about others (e.g., attribution theory) also apply to how people think about themselves. Constantine Sedikides and I, and members of our research teams, have recently explored whether the same priming effects that one obtains in perceptions of others (as documented by a host of researchers - Higgins, Wyer, Bargh, and their associates) also occur when people make judgments about themselves. In this line of research we also wondered whether such effects could be overridden be peoples' tendencies toward self-protectiveness in those judgments. The story here is just beginning to unfold.

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Social Cognition & Parenting Behavior

Sometimes the road of life takes unexpected turns. I have always claimed to be uninterested in the real world, but I now find myself involved in research conducted at the NIU Center for Family Violence. One of the prime goals of the research is to understand the self cognition and social cognition of potential child abusers – what is it about their cognitive structures and processes that leads them to be abuse prone? Is it their beliefs about parenting? Their implicit attitudes toward children? The interpretations that they offer to child misbehavior? Their inability to self-regulate? All of the above? Stay tuned for answers to such questions. My affiliation with the center gives those students who are research-focused and interested in interfaces between social cognition and the real world a chance to get training. We have been using both classic social cognition methods (e.g., subliminal priming) as well as physiological methods (e.g. ERP) to explore some of these questions. It's weird to see basic social cognition research paradigms so close to having an impact in the real world. Nonetheless, it's been a productive collaboration, and I expect it to continue for a while. Thankfully, the clinical psychologists on this research team are the ones responsible for turning the findings of this research into abuse-reduction programs – it would be dangerous and irresponsible to turn me loose on society.

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Having spent 14 years in the Ohio State system (an epicenter of the attitude universe) and having rubbed elbows with folks like Tom Ostrom, Rich Petty and Tim Brock, I suppose that it was inevitable that I would do some attitude stuff while I was there. While I would not be classified as a "hard core" attitudes researcher, it is certainly the case that my own interests in social judgment significantly overlap with the interests of many people who work in the attitudes area (e.g., assimilation and contrast effects in social judgment). Some indication of the overlap between the areas of social cognition and attitudes can be obtained from a chapter that Tom Ostrom, Andrezj Nowak, and I wrote several years ago (see selected references).

One of my current interests concerns the extent to which pre-existing attitudes (such as racial or gender attitudes) bias judgment, memory, and behavior, and the mechanisms by which such effects occur. A number of recent studies suggest that such biases sometimes occur implicitly - that is, they manifest themselves without peoples' knowledge or awareness. Members of my research team and I have just begun some research designed to examine how implicit racial attitudes toward an outgroup might unintentionally affect behavior toward outgroup members.

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