I am interested in how people come to understand themselves, form impressions of others, and operate as political, economic, and moral beings in a challenging and complicated world. As a judgment and decision making (JDM) and social cognition researcher, I examine the sophisticated and clever ways that people go about achieving these many goals, as well as the inevitable shortcomings that arise in such a complex pursuit. As reflected in my diverse research programs, I believe that the level of analysis afforded by social psychological and related methods allows for meaningful examination of a wide range of human experience.
In Section I, I describe my research on the self, which explores how the self comes to understand itself and is used in understanding other people. In Section II, I describe my research in moral psychology, which takes a person-centered (versus act-centered) approach to moral judgment. That is, I examine how people make moral judgments not merely by assessing the permissibility or justifiability of someone’s actions, but by using additional cues that shed light on the person's moral character. This research also examines the undue cynicism that characterizes social perception. In Section III, I highlight research that was inspired by real-world concerns or observations, but that ultimately seek to make basic theoretical contributions. In Section IV, I discuss research on the interplay of affective and cognitive processes. This research statement, in total, reflects the state of my research program and highlights many of the questions I look forward to pursuing.
I. The Self
In the language of William James, the self (the ‘I’) is a knower that seeks to develop a rich understanding of itself (the ‘me’), a body of knowledge that is useful in making predictions about one’s future and other people. But the ‘I’ must do so while satisfying its own basic needs. In my research, I examine how the self dispassionately uses information about the self in understanding others, how the self’s needs and motives color judgments of the world, and how self-knowledge and bottom-up experience influence each other in driving further understanding of the self and the world.
A. Why do prior beliefs about the self’s abilities (chronic self-views) mislead self-assessment?
In making sense of itself, the self encounters impediments to accurate self-perception. Preexisting (but inaccurate) self-knowledge is one of those roadblocks. In research with David Dunning, I examined why people’s preconceived notions of their ability in a given domain—their chronic self-views—interfere with people’s attempts to accurately perceive their own performance (Ehrlinger & Dunning, 2003). Although others have speculated that people assess performance by relying on chronic self-views instead of their direct bottom-up experience with the task, I instead found that bottom-up experience is the very mediator that explains the relationship between self-views and performance estimates (Critcher & Dunning, 2009b). In other words, given the same objective performance, those with less confidence in their abilities experienced tasks as taking longer to complete (despite no actual time differences), felt like they had a poorer memory for relevant information, and more often claimed they were merely guessing. By examining the interplay between top-down beliefs and bottom-up experience, my research explores the general question of how people gain self-insight and also highlights unique challenges facing those who tend to have unrealistically negative self-views (e.g., members of stereotyped groups).
B. How might people use their own experience to make sense of themselves?
Although self-knowledge may at times contaminate bottom-up experience, bottom-up experience also affects self-knowledge. According to Bem’s (1972) self-perception theory, internal cues are often experienced as “weak, ambiguous, and uninterpretable”; thus, people often must make judgments about themselves much as they make judgments of others—by looking to their external behaviors. In collaboration with Tom Gilovich, I examined a type of ubiquitious mental behavior that: 1) may be experienced more clearly than other internal cues, and 2) may be used as a cue to preferences. This understudied mental “behavior” is mindwandering. In a series of studies, I have shown that mindwandering to enjoyable, concurrent activities (as opposed to more negative or past events) leads people to infer they are bored with what they are doing (Critcher & Gilovich, 2010). I am interested in extending self-perception theory further to understand how people use mental behaviors not simply as a direct source of information about the self, but as input into a self-directed inferential process.
C. Pattern Projection: A novel route by which the self informs social judgment
Several decades of research on projection have shown repeatedly that people use information about the self in forming impressions of others. In all previous demonstrations, variation along a single dimension (e.g., “I am very honest”) is projected onto others (e.g., “Most people are honest”). In research with David Dunning, I have extended our understanding of projection by showing that people also project the patterning between traits onto others (Critcher & Dunning, 2009a). That is, creative introverts believe that creativity and extroversion are negatively correlated in people in general. Furthermore, this process is egocentric. People engage in such pattern projection based on the way traits are patterned in the self, but not based on the way traits are patterned in others.
More recently, I have examined the mechanism responsible for egocentric pattern projection. I find that people strive to create coherent, unified understandings of the self more so than they do for other people. That is, people explain specific aspects of their personalities in light of other aspects (e.g., “Extroversion puts me into contact with lots of people and their ideas, providing new fuel for my creative pursuits.”). These theories, developed to explain the self, then influence perceptions of others. Consistent with this idea, I have found that people “pattern project” a trait pair once they have developed a theory to explain why the two traits co-occur in the self (Critcher & Dunning, under review). In so doing, I show that differences in self and other representations explain why pattern projection is egocentric. This research identifies new ways that causal thinking underlies person representations and implicit personality theories, and finds a unifying middle ground on a long-standing debate about the “special nature” of the self.
D. Self-affirmation and responding to threat: When, Why, How
People are remarkably resilient to threat, in part due to the flexibility they exhibit in responding to it (e.g., Critcher, Helzer, & Dunning, in press). Given the effectiveness and interchangeability of different means of ego repair, psychologists are interested in nudging people toward responding to threat in adaptive, non-defensive ways. Recent research on self-affirmation—simple reminders of valued aspects of one’s identity—has shown that people are more receptive to and even-handed in evaluating threatening information when they are self-affirmed.
But despite more than 25 years of research showing the power of self-affirmation to reduce defensive responding, it is still unclear when and why affirmations work. I have pursued these questions in two lines of research. In collaboration with David Dunning and David Armor, I show that affirmations positioned after a threat block defensive responding only if the threat response has yet to be initiated (Critcher, Dunning, & Armor, 2010), a subtlety missed in past research due to experimental confounds. This finding is useful both to basic researchers seeking to develop a more complete understanding of self-affirmation processes and to practitioners who need to know when affirmations will exert their strongest impact.
Together with David Dunning, I have proposed the Affirmation as Perspective model to explain why self-affirmations reduce defensive responding. Specifically, I argue that the working self-concept constricts around the threatened aspect of one’s identity. The threatened self-aspect looms large in mind and exerts a disproportionately negative influence on one’s momentary feelings of self-worth. Self-affirmations help to broaden one’s working self-concept, diluting the evaluative impact of the threatened identity on general feelings toward the self. In one study, merely drawing in multiple identities in a visual representation of one’s working self-concept reduced defensiveness to the same extent as did writing an essay about a valued identity, a more traditional affirmation manipulation (Critcher & Dunning, in prep). In addition to honing in on the crucial ingredient of effective self-affirmations, the model accounts for a number of mysteries in the affirmation and defensiveness literatures.
II. Moral Judgment: A Person-Centered Approach
I approach moral psychology not as an experimental philosopher who is interested in which philosophical moral prescriptions are shared by lay people, but as a social psychologist who sees judgments of others’ morality as a type of person perception. From this perspective, moral judgments are ultimately in the service of forming impressions of people, not of the permissibility of specific acts. My research highlights ways in which people are at times sophisticated moral reasoners, and at times moral observers who are logically inconsistent and too quick to condemn others (see Critcher & Pizarro, 2008, for examples of both).
A. Are our impressions of others too charitable or too harsh?
Economists see freely chosen behavior as self-interested by definition. From this perspective, it may seem impossible to examine whether people perceive too much self-interest in the world. In collaboration with David Dunning, I have suggested that although one could, in theory, define self-interest as do economists, this is not how most individuals use the term. Instead, I developed a novel application of Bayes’ Rule that allows a test of whether people see others as more or less self-interested than would be justified given their own definition of the concept. I find that people see the “right amount” of self-interest in behaviors that, on the surface, seem selfish, but that they see an unjustifiably high amount of self-interest in behaviors that, on the surface, seem more selfless. Such cynicism characterizes general attributional thought, leading, for example, people to grow increasingly negative in their impressions of honored charity workers the more that people think about such philanthropists (Critcher & Dunning, invited revision). I believe this asymmetric attributional pattern—attributional cynicism—can help explain why people maintain exaggerated confidence in the prevalence of self-interest, and thus why people often overestimate the prevalence of seemingly selfish behaviors.
If people are quick to infuse self-interest into others’ actions, then one can imagine that this cynical slant could lead to premature conclusions that others are behaving antisocially. In research with Vivian Zayas, I have examined how people respond to ambiguous social exclusion, partial exclusion—a circumstance in which Person A includes Person B, but excludes Person C. I find that Person C (the excluded person) is quick to lump Person B (the included person) with Person A (the excluder). In fact, the excluded draw many of the same inferences about the other two people as they would in a circumstance in which both Person A and Person B are jointly excluding Person C (Critcher & Zayas, in prep). Although the excluded person assumes the included person is highly flattered and really likes the excluder, the included person finds the situation awkward and uncomfortable, and in actuality would like to reintroduce the excluded person to the group. These expectations lead the excluded person to behave toward the included person in maladaptive ways, potentially turning expectations of exclusion into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
B. How do we know if someone is a good or a bad person?
On the one hand, this question may seem trivial: Good people commit good acts, bad people commit bad acts. But in judging the character of others, people do not merely judge their acts; they judge people based on the deliberation process leading to those actions. In collaboration with Yoel Inbar, I questioned past conclusions that bad acts committed impulsively are accorded less blame. In this research, I distinguish emotion-based impulsivity (the target of past research) from rashness-based impulsivity (making a morally relevant decision extremely quickly and without deliberation). I show that people rely on the quickness with which a person makes a morally relevant decision as a guide to the person’s underlying moral character. Rashness (and thus a perceived lack of inner conflict) signals the purity or corruptness of the person’s underlying moral character. Thus, bad acts committed rashly are blamed more, whereas good acts committed rashly are praised more (Critcher & Inbar, in prep-b).
In a separate but related line of research, I have shown that people judge moral actions not merely according to whether they are compatible with abstract moral principles, but according to whether an act is compatible with the moral principles that the person could have understood when acting. As a concrete example, participants in one study learned of a moral dilemma in which a man must decide whether to kill a child (a deontological violation) in order to save a group of people (a utilitarian solution). Even though participants find both actions (killing or not) morally acceptable, participants condemn someone who makes the utilitarian decision (to kill the child) when the situation forces him to decide quickly (Critcher, Helzer, Tannenbaum, & Pizarro, in prep). This is because people assume the utilitarian decision could only be appreciated with extra thought. People assume that a good person forced to decide quickly would choose not to kill the child, because the prohibition against killing would reflect the moral intuitions of a morally praiseworthy person. This demonstrates how moral judgments are made in the service of forming impressions of people, and are not pure statements of whether an action could be justified by abstract principles.
III. Real-world Questions That Guide Basic Research: Political Psychology and Judgment and Decision Making
I believe it is fruitful to consider pressing real-world questions when deciding what basic research to pursue. There is much basic theory to develop, and looking to current real-world concerns can help to guide where such development might most profitably occur. In this section, I highlight several lines of work inspired by real-world observations, but that ultimately seek to make theoretical contributions.
A. Research Relevant to Current Political Issues
President Clinton defended the military’s ban on openly gay service members by arguing that because gay and lesbian service members could serve (if they concealed their identities), meritocratic ideals of the military would not be compromised. In collaboration with Melissa Ferguson, I have tested whether concealing one’s sexual orientation may actually hinder one’s ability to perform up to one’s potential. In my basic paradigm, participants take part in an interview in which some are given a cover story specifying why they must conceal their sexual orientation from the interviewer. On subsequent mental and physical tasks, performance suffers (Critcher & Ferguson, in prep-a). These effects hold among gay and straight participants alike and are not moderated by participants’ practice or experience concealing their sexual orientation. I have decoupled two aspects of identity concealment—1) the constant vigilance against identity revelation, and 2) having to modify speech that may have revealed one’s identity—to determine what produces these depletion effects. My studies consistently show that vigilance, but not modification, produces these effects. Despite more than a decade of research on ego depletion, this reflects, to my knowledge, the first evidence that identifies which component of self-regulation may be resource-depleting.
A second line of research began with the observation that disbelief in global warming is surprisingly high, given the scientific consensus of its existence. In collaboration with Jane Risen, I have found that belief in global warming is not merely a product of one’s scientific understanding, but varies depending on one’s current visceral state of warmth or coldness (Risen & Critcher, in press). In this research, I establish visceral fit as a new basic JDM principle—when experiencing a visceral state (e.g., warmth), states of the world that would produce that state (e.g., global warming) seem more likely. I establish simulational fluency as a novel psychological mechanism—while hot, people mentally simulate a world plagued by global warming more clearly, and the clarity of the simulation makes global warming feel more real.
B. Research Relevant to People as Political Agents
In two lines of research, I have drawn on and developed basic social psychological principles in understanding how people operate in the political world. In work with Michaela Huber, Arnold Ho, and Spassena Koleva, I have examined differences in how liberals and conservatives respond to inconsistencies in their own ideologies, tying these distinct responses to fundamental differences in how the two groups tend to represent political issues (Critcher, Huber, Ho, & Koleva, 2009). Conservatives are more loathe to concede having to be inconsistent in the application of their values (drawing on the value of life in opposing abortion, but not when supporting capital punishment). Liberals are more comfortable with relativistic morality, being more likely to concede that they apply their values in inconsistent ways.
In a second line of work, I have examined an ironic consequence of the election of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. After the election, a number of commentators asked whether Obama’s victory signaled the end of racism in America. In my sample, participants explicitly rejected this logic. But following incidental exposure to Barack Obama or other African Americans who have succeeded in stereotypically White domains (e.g., Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University), participants came to blame African Americans more for socioeconomic disparities between Whites and Blacks, assuming that such differences are more reflective of problems within the Black community than of racism from White Americans (Critcher, Risen, & Ferguson, in prep). We find that people who are high in Need for Cognition show this effect more strongly, even as they are the people who most vehemently deny the reasonableness of using exceptional Black exemplars to draw such category-wide conclusions. We are now examining how those who most frequently engage in inferential and deductive thought may be sophisticated explicit reasoners even as they are more likely to be led astray by certain implicit influences.
C. Research Relevant to Economic and Health Decision Making
My research examines variables that impact decision making, with a focus on influences that are non-normative or deemed irrelevant by prevailing theories. In one line of research, I have examined what Tom Gilovich and I have called incidental environmental anchors (Critcher & Gilovich, 2008). Although past research had found that numeric primes exert a weak influence on numeric judgment, my research finds that under certain externally valid conditions, numeric priming effects may be much stronger. In one study, participants observed one of two ads for a restaurant. The ads were equivalent, except one restaurant was called “Studio 17”, and one was called “Studio 97.” Participants were willing to pay eight dollars more to eat at Studio 97, showing the powerful influence of the numeric prime. In subsequent research, I am exploring ways in which numeric primes operate similarly (and dissimilarly) to conceptual primes. In addition, the research establishes qualitatively novel ways by which people are numerically primed in their everyday environments (Critcher, Rosenzweig, Maher, & Gilovich, in prep).
A second line of research began with the observation that people willingly undertake significant risks to achieve health-relevant outcomes (e.g., optional surgeries that carry risks of death). Regardless of the descriptive theory of risky decision making to which one subscribes (e.g., prospect theory, a configural weight model, etc.), a common prediction is that two lotteries that have equivalent underlying structure (equivalent probabilities of each possible outcome, with the outcomes matched on utility) should produce equivalent risky decisions. Instead, I find that depending on the domain (e.g., health, monetary), people attend to different parameters of the decision context, which then produces different risky decisions. More specifically, those considering risky health prospects are gain-focused, with their decisions driven by the value of what can be gained, whereas those considering a monetary gamble are risk-focused, with their decisions most influenced by the probability and magnitude of the possible loss (Critcher & Inbar, in prep-a). This research offers practical advice for how to encourage or discourage risky decisions, depending on the domain. It also highlights the need to incorporate risk domain into descriptive models of risky decision making.
IV. The Interplay of Cognition and Affect
Emotion researchers have lamented that the cognitive revolution minimized the importance of affective influences on judgment and behavior. Mindful of this concern, my research instead examines how cognition and affect influence each other, and how they work in concert in driving behavior. Recent research has established the importance of implicit affect in goal pursuit. But might one value a goal while feeling negatively toward the pursuit (e.g., “I think it’s very important to get an A in my art history class even though I hate the class.”)? I tested whether an implicit belief in the importance of a goal might be more important than the affective response to the goal in determining goal success. Using experimental, correlational, and longitudinal designs, I have found that implicit belief in the importance of academics, but not implicit attitudes, predicts academic performance over the course of a semester (Critcher & Ferguson, in prep-b). This research highlights the importance of implicit beliefs, not merely implicit attitudes, in self-regulation and goal pursuit.
Another line of work seeks to reconcile literatures that are seemingly inconsistent as to whether abstract or concrete ways of thinking are associated with greater attention to affect. I highlight that most of the work that has shown a connection between concreteness and affect has defined concreteness in terms of the real or vivid presence of a stimulus, and not in terms of the level of abstraction at which a stimulus is cognitively represented. I show that when a more generalized abstract (versus concrete) mindset is induced, people are more likely to categorize stimuli along affective dimensions, show automatic attention to affect, behave in ways that correspond more closely to affective attitudes, and be influenced by affective stimuli presented outside of awareness (Critcher & Ferguson, invited revision).
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2009a). Egocentric pattern projection: How implicit personality theories recapitulate the geography of the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1-16.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2009b). How chronic self-views influence (and mislead) self-assessments of performance: Self-views shape bottom-up experiences with the task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 931-945.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (in press). No good deed goes unquestioned: Cynical reconstruals maintain belief in the power of self-interest. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Critcher, C. R., Dunning, D., & Armor, D. A. (2010). When self-affirmations reduce defensiveness: Timing is key. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 947-959.
Critcher, C. R., & Ferguson, M. J. (in press). Abstract mindsets promote attention to affect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Critcher, C. R., & Gilovich, T. (2008). Incidental environmental anchors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 21, 241-251.
Critcher, C. R., & Gilovich, T. (2010). Inferring attitudes from mental behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1255-1266.
Critcher, C. R., Helzer, E. G., & Dunning, D. (2011). Self-Enhancement via redefinition: Defining social concepts to ensure positive views of self. In M. D. Alicke, & C. Sedikides (Eds.), Handbook of self-enhancement and self-protection (pp. 69-91). New York: Guilford Press.
Critcher, C. R., Huber, M., Ho, A. K., & Koleva, S. P. (2009). Political orientation and ideological inconsistencies: (Dis)comfort with value tradeoffs. Social Justice Research, 22, 281-305.
Critcher, C. R., & Pizarro, D. A. (2008). Paying for someone else’s mistake: The effect of bystander negligence on perpetrator blame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1357-1370.
Risen, J. L., & Critcher, C. R. (in press). Visceral fit: While in a visceral state, associated states of the world seem more likely. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (in prep-a). Affirmations provide perspective: Reducing defensiveness by expanding the working self-concept.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (in prep-b). Causal narratives guide implicit personality theories: An explanation of egocentric pattern projection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Critcher, C. R., & Ferguson, M. J. (in prep-a). Identity concealment and ego depletion: Might “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hinder performance?
Critcher, C. R., & Ferguson, M. J. (in prep-b). Implicit belief in the importance of academics, but not implicit affect, predicts academic performance.
Critcher, C. R., Helzer, E. G., Tannenbaum, D., & Pizarro, D. A. (in prep). Moral judgments stem not from the goodness of acts, but from the goodness of the principles motivating them.
Critcher, C. R., & Inbar, Y. (in prep-a). What are you willing to die for? How risk domain changes attention to risk parameters.
Critcher, C. R., & Inbar, Y. (in prep-b). When impulsivity illuminates moral character: The case of rashness.
Critcher, C. R., Risen, J. L., & Ferguson, M. J. (in prep). If he can do it, so can they: Exposure to successful Black exemplars unintentionally shifts explanations for racial disparities.
Critcher, C. R., Rosenzweig, E. L., Maher, T., & Gilovich, T. (in prep). Beyond anchoring as restraint: Incidental numbers can also influence adjustment.
Critcher, C. R., & Zayas, V. (in prep). “He invited you but not me!?”: Excluded people are quick to group excluders with those they include.