Research Description

Our lab is currently working on three distinct research programs, which we refer to as Cultural Psychology, Meaning Maintenance, and Genetic Essentialism.

First, we are interested in questions about culture and human nature in psychology. What psychological processes are universal to all, and what processes are largely limited to certain cultural groups? Knowing the answer to these questions greatly informs our understanding of the nature and function of these processes. Much of our research has focused on investigations of Japanese and North Americans, the two cultures with which I have the most experience. For example, we have explored how, in contrast to North American self-enhancing motivations, where individuals focus on how good they are, Japanese seem better characterized as demonstrating self-improving motivations and focus on how they are not doing good enough. Self-enhancing motivations serve the maintenance of self-esteem, whereas self-improving motivations serve face-maintenance. We are currently investigating a variety of other topics in cultural psychology, such as whether there are sensitive windows in people's development in which they are most receptive to learning cultural meaning systems.

Our second research program explores how people strive to maintain a sense of meaning in their lives when they encounter anomalies which they are unable to make any sense of. We propose a “meaning maintenance model” in which people continually strive to preserve a functioning meaning framework. When people encounter a threat to their meaning, be it through a self-esteem threat, feelings of uncertainty, mortality salience, or witnessing a scene that does not make sense, they need to regain a sense of meaning. Often people will reaffirm an independent meaning framework in their efforts to regain meaning. We are conducting a number of different studies in which we explore the various ways that people respond to a diverse array of threats to meaning. For example, we have found that when people witness something that is odds with their meaning frameworks, such as interacting with an experimenter who is surreptiously switched on them midway through the study, playing cards with a deck that includes reverse-colored cards, reading an absurd Kafka story, or contemplating the unresolved inconsistencies in their own lives, they respond by affirming their commitment to other meaning frameworks that remain intact. That is, they become more patriotic, they are more willing to defend the status quo,and they desire more meaning in their lives. Further, we find that when people are not provided with an alternative framework to affirm they will seek out new frameworks instead, and will abstract patterns from noise.

Our third research program on genetic esssentialism considers how people understand essences and genetic foundations for human behavior. We propose that encounters with genetic explanations for human outcomes prompts people to think of those outcomes in essentiialized ways, by viewing those outcomes as more deterministic, immutable, and fatalistic. For example, we find that women are more vulnerable to stereotype threat when they hear of genetic reasons for why men outperform women in math than when they hear of environmental reasons for this difference. We also find that men are more tolerant of sex crimes when they learn of genetic basis for sexual motivations than when they hear of social-constructivist accounts. We are conducting several studies to explore the ways that people respond to genetic accounts for human conditions.