Statement of Research Interests

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”

“Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice”

– Kurt Lewin


* indicates graduate students

People have high aspirations for their lives. Realizing the value of education for modern economic prosperity, they aspire to attain high levels of education – to obtain academic credentials like college degrees that can enrich their lives and the lives of their families. They aspire to live long enough, and healthy enough lives to fulfill their dreams and watch their offspring do the same. They aspire to do these things in environments that support their well-being. Whether people attain those aspirations however, depends in part on the affordances (and drawbacks) of the contexts they are embedded in and how they make meaning of the messages communicated to them by those contexts.

The goal of my research is two-fold. First, I aim to uncover the dynamic processes beneath the relations I just described: to improve our theoretical understanding of why it is that people’s social contexts and identities shape meaning-making processes that are consequential for gaps between their aspirations and attainment, as well as disparities in those gaps. Second, I aim to test the practical implications of those theories, by examining them in the domains of education, health, and environmental sustainability, where I hope the knowledge we generate can inform interventions to improve outcomes and reduce social disparities. I take a multi-method approach in this endeavor, integrating methods from across the social sciences including laboratory and field experiments, longitudinal studies, social network analysis, focus groups, systematic reviews and meta-analysis, and psycho-physiological techniques (e.g., eye-tracking). I organize this research into two related lines which are briefly summarized below.

I. Psychology of Communication and its Implications for Motivation and Goal Pursuit

My first line of research examines how people from different backgrounds make meaning of messages they encounter in life, and the implications of those meaning-making processes for their motivation and behavior (Lewis, 2019a, APS Observer). My collaborators and I study these processes at four levels of analysis.

First, we examine how the granular details of messages in interpersonal conversations about what we should do to achieve our life goals influence how people make sense of those messages. We then examine the consequences of these meaning-making processes for people’s motivation to take goal-relevant actions. To date, we have examined these processes in the domains of savings behavior (Lewis & Oyserman, 2015, Psychological Science), health behavior (Lewis & Earl, 2018, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), and sustainability behavior (Lewis & Oyserman, revise & resubmit, Behavioral Science & Policy).

Second, we examine how observing others in the groups we belong to, or observing differences between our groups and other groups, influence motivation and goal pursuit processes (Lewis & Oyserman, 2016, Behavioral Science & Policy; Oyserman & Lewis, 2017, Social Issues & Policy Review). For instance, we have examined how Black patients’ concerns about being stigmatized by racial in-group (but not out-group) members affects their decisions to pay attention to health information (Lewis, *Kougias, *Takahashi, & Earl, in press, Health Communication), and we have examined how racial and social-class stratification in the United States leads to differences in perceptions about what “counts” as an environmental issue, which has implications for collective action to engage in sustainability related efforts (*Song, Lewis, et al., 2020, Journal of Environmental Psychology).

Third, we examine how the organizations people are embedded in either implicitly or explicitly communicate messages to their members about whether they belong and therefore whether it is possible for them to achieve their goals (Carter, Onyeador, & Lewis, in press, Behavioral Science & Policy). We not only examine the long-term experiences of people being in organizations that are differentially supportive of their members (Lewis, Sekaquaptewa, & Meadows, in revision), we also develop and test interventions for making organizations more inclusive, in attempts to improve the success and well-being of members from a variety of backgrounds (Lewis, Sekaquaptewa, & Meadows, 2019, Social Psychology of Education).

The fourth and final way that we study these processes is by examining how societal level segregation and social stratification shapes the meaning people make of their experiences and the consequences for their motivation and goal pursuit efforts. We have studied this by examining how dimensions of social stratification correlate with motivational constructs that predict persistence across domains (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2017, Contemporary Educational Psychology), as well as by studying the experiences of people that were raised in one context but then moved to another (Lewis & Yates, 2019, Perspectives on Psychological Science).

Our broader goal in these efforts is to develop a more holistic understanding of how features of social contexts can communicate information to individuals that intentionally or unintentionally support or undermine people’s motivation pursue their goals (Oyserman, Lewis, et al., 2017, Psychological Inquiry). This holistic understanding can lead us to generate testable predictions for strategies that can inform interventions to improve outcomes and reduce group-based disparities (Lewis, 2019b, The Brookings Institution).

II. Intervention Metascience and Methodology

The second line of my research builds on the first by examining how the processes behavioral scientists use to generate knowledge influence our understanding of social phenomenon, and the implications of our knowledge-generation processes for both theory and intervention development (Lewis, 2019, Communication Methods and Measures). I have been struck by the large amount of variability and “context-sensitivity” of findings published across the behavioral and social sciences (Klein, …, Lewis, et al., 2018, Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science). Variability is not inherently a problem – social life is complex and thus we should expect contexts to influence our ability to detect social phenomenon. The issue in my mind, is that we cannot always reliably predict which variables are essential to produce a result. To borrow from persuasion and social influence scholar Carl Hovland, at present we do not always know who needs to say what to whom for an intervention to produce a desired outcome in a particular context.

It is not always, or even often, clear how much of the variance in results we find are due to features of the stimuli we selected and how we sequenced our study procedures (*Ruisch, Lewis, & Ferguson, accepted in principle, Nature Human Behavior), whether and how features of the time period during which the study was conducted matter for the results found (Lewis & *Michalak, accepted in principle, Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology), whether the researchers or other agents of change (e.g., doctors, teachers, government officials) delivering messages and the ways they communicate matter for how participants make sense of messages and thus, whether they are motivated to act on them (Earl & Lewis, 2019, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). Studying these dynamics in concert is important for improving our theories about factors that guide human behavior, and for leveraging those theories to develop effective interventions to improve social outcomes (Goroff, Lewis, Scheel, Scherer, & Tucker, revise & resubmit, Harvard Data Science Review).

To study these dynamics, I have been collaborating with researchers around the world (e.g., via the Psychological Science Accelerator) to conduct large-scale multi-site studies that enable us to examine how different constellations of person-level and situation-level variables influence outcomes. Through collaborative research networks as well as research-practice partnerships I have been cultivating with organizations, we are now able to recruit participants from a broad range of contexts and populations to participate in our intervention studies (e.g., Forscher, Taylor, Cavagnaro, Lewis, et al., revise & resubmit, Nature Human Behavior). This allows us to test what makes interventions more effective for some people than for others, which improves our understanding of underlying theories of human behavior.

Using the methods I described above to study heterogeneity in intervention effects, and metascientific processes more generally, has had several benefits. It has forced us to think more critically about factors that influence people, and the implications of those factors for research and practice. We spend more time thinking about what the right questions are to ask and how the ways we ask those questions and sequence intervention procedures influence participants’ metacognitive experiences, experiences that can differ substantially across groups and sub-groups. This leads us toward more critical reflections about how generalizable our current knowledge is and what we could learn by making more concerted efforts to increase representation in our samples and settings (Lewis, 2019a, APS Observer). All of this ultimately forces us to think holistically about what our models and theories ultimately mean.

If you are interested in learning more about any of the research described above, feel free to email me (