I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Social and Behavioral Science Initiative (SBSI) at the University of Pennsylvania. Before that, I was a postdoctoral researcher in the Crockett Lab at Yale University. I received my PhD in social psychology at New York University with professors Yaacov Trope and Jay Van Bavel, and worked as a research associate at Harvard University with professor Dan Gilbert. My interests center on how people assess and influence their surroundings, including how they decide between right and wrong, compare themselves to others, evaluate people’s behavior, and explore new spaces.
Recently I have been collaborating with the nonprofit organization More in Common to use insights from social science to help understand and bridge political divides. Our research report (called “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”), which finds an “Exhausted Majority” in the American electorate, has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, NPR, and CNN. On April 10th, 2019, research from our report was featured on the front page of the New York Times. In October 2018 I gave a half-hour interview about the research on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and in November I authored an accompanied opinion piece about the work in the New York Times.
In June, 2019, I led a project on how people exaggerate the views of their political opponents entitled The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart.
While I have always been fascinated by life’s “Big Questions”—about consciousness, morality, knowledge, human nature, etc.—one in particular has moved me since the beginning: What is the nature of reality? Unfortunately for us humans, the instrument we must use to answer this question—the brain—is nothing more than a bundle of neurons, perched atop our bodies like a bowling ball on a candlepin. We are geared toward sex and survival, not truth and accuracy. It’s like peering out at the night sky through a telescope with a distorted lens: to understand what you are looking at, you first have to see how the glass is bent.
For this reason, psychology is more than the study of human nature: it’s also an attempt to comprehend reality itself. Like any good scientist, if we want to understand the world, we first have to understand our own instruments.
Making progress in this quest is the central goal of my career. As an undergraduate at Williams College, I double majored in philosophy and psychology, inspired by the great intellectuals of the past (William James, Aristotle, Newton) who similarly blended philosophical and empirical methods. My senior thesis, which won the department’s highest research award, explored how a subjective sense of scarcity impacts people’s perception of time.
After college, I realized (correctly!) that there is no better time to explore wildly different interests. So I moved to Paris to study jazz piano at the Centre International de la Musique, paying my way by tutoring the SATs. During this time, I gained an appreciation of how culture shapes people’s perception of the world.
After eighteen months immersed in the sights and sounds of the city, I wanted to better understand how people live on the opposite side of the economic spectrum—and do my part to help less fortunate others. So I traveled to Nicaragua, where I taught 7th and 8th-graders at a school called the Pearl Lagoon Academy of Excellence. My class, entitled “Thinking Critically about our Changing World,” used insights from philosophy, economics, ecology, and psychology to give young people the perspective to make good life decisions. In addition, an after-school soccer program I initiated was granted funding from USAID for supplies and a long-term coach’s salary.
In 2011 I enrolled in graduate school in social psychology at New York University under the mentorship of professors Yaacov Trope and Jay Van Bavel. My research focused on two important behaviors. The first, social comparison, is the act of learning about oneself in relation to others. The second, moral evaluation, consists in deciding whether others’ behavior is right or wrong. My PhD dissertation explored how interpersonal similarity influences social comparison.
After graduate school, I did my postdoctoral research at Yale University with professor Molly Crockett, studying how transformative experiences at mass gatherings—including the Burning Man festival in central Nevada—can change people’s moral values and behavior.
Currently, I am a Fellow at the Social and Behavioral Science Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania studying how social context in various populations can impact people’s moral judgment and behavior.
In an effort to do my part to counteract growing polarization in America, this year I teamed up with the nonprofit organization “More in Common” to use insights from social science to better understand the roots of political division. Our research report shows how core beliefs—the “lenses” through which people see the world—drive polarization, and highlights possible areas of common ground.
In the coming years I plan on continuing to use the tools of social science to improve human interaction and society. Through teaching, speaking, researching, and writing, I hope to do my part to help humanity shape reality: by realizing the best possible version of itself.