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From the Bystander Effect to Political Ideologies: Excellence in Personality & Social Psychology

When you pass by a stranger in need of help, do you stop to lend a hand? Maybe not... A landmark 1973 study found that seminary students in a hurry were less likely to help someone in distress, even when they were on their way to deliver a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A co-author of that study and several other distinguished researchers are the recipients of the 2013 annual awards from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). The contributions of these scientists to personality and social psychology include furthering our understanding of how personality shapes health and well-being across adulthood, why it's so hard to evaluate ourselves, and the virtues that divide political ideologies.
The Society's highest awards – the Jack Block, Donald T. Campbell, and Distinguished Scholar awards – go to Robert R. ("Jeff”) McCrae, retired from the National Institute of Aging, Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, and Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University, respectively. The Career Contribution awards, which honor scholars whose research has led the field in new directions, are C. Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas and James Sidanius of Harvard University.
Good Samaritan, Social Dominance
Batson co-authored with John Darley the 1973 study on the "bystander effect” – revealing processes that influence how and when we help people. His work looks at a variety of topics that bridge psychology and religion, including altruism, empathy, and compassion. Batson is leading proponent for the existence of pure or selfless altruism, in which people help out of a genuine concern for the welfare of others.
Sidanius’ work explains the acceptance of group-based social hierarchy – such as believing that men are superior to women or that Whites are superior to people of color – by both the dominant and oppressed groups. Long before others were convinced, Sidanius analyzed the inevitability and the significance of hierarchy in structuring society, social relations, and psychological functioning – pioneering the study of the widely shared cultural ideologies that provide the justification for group-based hierarchies.
Personality, Self-Insight, and Mindset
McCrae's work on personality in aging adults led to a resurgence of personality psychology in the 1980s and the establishment of the Big Five model of personality traits that persists today. His work has shown how individual differences in personality traits effect everything from health to coping. McCrae has established new ways of measuring personality traits and has looked at the effects of personality cross-culturally. Recently, he has written provocative papers on the future of personality psychology for the 21st century, including exploring the molecular genetics of personality dispositions.
Wilson's research examines why it is so hard for people to accurately evaluate themselves. He has shed light into the ways in which people are mistaken about themselves, whether wrong about the causes of their past actions or about their present attitudes. His book Stranger to Ourselves explored the challenges of self-insight. An Elected Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wilson works to ensure that public policy is informed by scientific fact.
Dweck's work has examined how people’s mindsets shape their lives and determine their achievement. In a series of well-known studies, Dweck demonstrated how people with a "growth mindset,” who believe that certain qualities, such as intelligence, can be developed make life choices that lead to greater success than those with a "fixed mindset,” who believe that basic abilities are unchangeable. This distinction profoundly affects people’s motivation, psychological well-being, and learning, and the ideas have been extended to apply to work in diverse areas, such as education and intergroup relations.
Math and Science Intervention, Political Ideologies, Hidden bias
An intervention aimed at parents can boost children's interest in math and science, according the study awarded this year's Robert B. Cialdini Award for excellence in a published field study. Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, with colleagues Christopher Rozek, Chris Hulleman, and Janet Hyde, sent to parents of high-school students information that emphasized the importance of mathematics and science to college, career, and everyday life, and that offered tips for parents to communicate this importance to their children. Compared to a control group, children whose parents received the information took nearly a full extra semester of math and science. The paper, "Helping parents to motivate adolescents in mathematics and science: An experimental test of a utility-value intervention,” was published in Psychological Science. Honorable Mention for the Cialdini Award goes to "Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end,” by Lisa L. Shu and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The recipient of the Media Book Prize is Jonathan Haidt for The Righteous Mind, which takes a tour of how people bind themselves to political and religious teams and the moral narratives that accompany them. Using a range of arguments – anthropological, psychological, and evolutionary – Haidt proposes that the U.S. political left and the right emphasize different virtues and he suggests that we use that discovery to try to get along.
The Methodological Innovation Award goes to Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington, who in 1998 created the Implicit Association Test (IAT) – a widely-used method for measuring attitudes, stereotypes, self-concepts, and self-esteem without relying on self-reporting. Researchers have used the IAT in fields ranging from education and health to forensics and marketing. Tens of thousands of people weekly visit the Project Implicit website, created by Greenwald and colleagues.
Recipients of the Carol and Ed Diener Award in Personality Psychology and the Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology are Andrew J. Elliot of the University of Rochester and Nalini Ambady of Stanford, respectively. Elliot studies achievement and social motivation, particularly in educational contexts, and focuses on how approach and avoidance temperaments, motives, and goals influence psychological functioning. Ambady's work looks at "thin slices” – showing that social, emotional, and perceptual judgments made on the basis of brief behavioral observations can be surprisingly accurate.
The remaining SPSP awards for 2013 are as follows:
  • The 2013 SPSP Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology: Kay Deaux of City University of New York and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford. A great mentor and supporter of diversity in the field, Deaux's pioneering work looks at gender, identity, and immigration, reflecting her deep social consciousness. Markus has worked to create the field of cultural psychology – shifting it from the assumption that research findings in one culture represent basic processes of human nature, to the idea of linking different social and personality processes to gender, race, social class, age, and culture.


  • The 2013 SPSP Service Award for Distinguished Service to the Society: Wendi Gardner of Northwestern University and George (Al) Goethals of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Through her roles with the Society, Gardner has played a vital role in shaping the organization's annual conferences and also has served as a passionate advocate for graduate students. As Secretary-Treasurer of SPSP (1995-1997), Goethals shepherded the Society through lean financial times, helping it to establish a solid financial foundation.
  • The 2013 Theoretical Innovation Prize: Kurt Gray, Liane Young, and Adam Waytz for their 2012 Psychological Inquiry article entitled "Mind Perception is the Essence of Morality.” The paper proposes a simplification in the way psychologists view moral judgment.
A ceremony at the 2014 annual SPSP conference in Austin, TX (Feb. 13-15, 2014) will honor all of this year's award recipients. Full citations are available online. 
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