Brief Statement of Research Interests

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”

“Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice”

– Kurt Lewin


My research examines how and why people’s identities and social context shape the meaning they make of their experiences, and the downstream consequences of meaning-making processes for people’s motivation to pursue their goals and success in achieving those goals. I often study these processes in the domains of education, health, and environmental sustainability, where I hope the knowledge gained from my research can inform interventions to improve outcomes and reduce disparities. I take a multi-method approach to conducting this research, using methods such as: 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 broad streams:

I. Psychology of Communication and its Implications for Motivating Individuals and Groups.

The first line of my research examines how people from different walks of life make meaning of information in messages and the implications of those meaning-making processes for motivation and behavior. For example, we’ve studied how the granularity of message frames about future events like college or retirement affect Americans’ sense of connection between their present and future selves, and the implications for their motivation to save (Lewis & Oyserman, 2015, Psychological Science), as well as how comparable messaging strategies can influence health decision-making (Lewis & Earl, 2018, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) and the broader implications of these processes for self-regulation (Oyserman, Lewis, et al., 2017, Psychological Inquiry). We have also studied how messages about what it means to experience difficulties in life influence academic (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2017, Contemporary Educational Psychology) and health outcomes, and what those messages might mean for interventions to improve outcomes for different populations (Lewis & Oyserman, 2016, Behavioral Science and Policy; Lewis & Yates, 2019, Perspectives on Psychological Science; Oyserman & Lewis, 2017, Social Issues and Policy Review).

My current research in this line is taking the lessons we’ve learned from the previous studies and thinking about what they might mean for environmental sustainability, particularly as it intersects with education and health disparities. My collaborators and I are beginning to explore how messages about the environment, climate change, and sustainability are interpreted differently by various sub-sets of the population (Hall, Lewis, & Ellsworth, 2018, Journal of Environmental Psychology), and what the consequences of that might be for our collective future.

II. Examining Context-Sensitivity to Increase the Utility of Behavioral Science Interventions.

The second, more meta-scientific, line of my research is beginning to more systematically study “context-sensitivity” in social and behavioral science research in hopes of making our research more useful for practice. One issue in social scientific research is that many findings are rather context dependent – if we find an effect in situation A it might not occur in situation B. Context sensitivity is not inherently a problem – social life is complex so we should expect context to matter for what we find. The problem is that we cannot always (maybe even often) reliably predict which contextual variables will matter to detect an effect (Goroff, Lewis, Scheel, Scherer, & Tucker, pre-print posted). To borrow from the persuasion and social influence scholar Carl Hovland, we do not always know who needs to say what to whom and with what effect for an effect to occur as we move from one context or population to another; if we do not know that, it is difficult to develop (and scale) interventions effectively. I believe we need much more systematic investigation of context sensitivity, particularly in the realm of behavioral science interventions, and thus that is a focus of some of my newer research (Forscher, Taylor, Lewis, & Cavagnaro, pre-print posted; Lewis & *Michalak, revise & resubmit, Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology; *Premachandra & Lewis, ongoing research).

* denotes graduate students

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