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 contexts 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 generated by my research can inform interventions to improve outcomes and reduce disparities. I take a multi-method approach to conducting this research, integrating methods from across the social sciences including laboratory and field experiments, longitudinal studies, social network analysis, qualitative focus groups, systematic reviews and meta-analysis, and psycho-physiological techniques such as eye-tracking. I organize this research into two related lines:

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

The first line of my research examines how people from different backgrounds make meaning of details in messages and the implications of those meaning-making processes for their motivation and behavior (Lewis, 2019, APS Observer). For example, my colleagues and I have studied how the granularity of metrics used to describe future events like college or retirement affect Americans’ sense of connection between their present and future selves, and the implications of those situated identity processes for their motivation to save for the future (Lewis & Oyserman, 2015; Psychological Science). We have also examined how comparable messaging strategies affect identity processes that have downstream consequences for how people make health decisions (Lewis & Earl, 2018, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Lewis, *Kougias, *Takahashi, & Earl, under review). Together, this research has moved us toward a more holistic understanding of how features of social contexts can communicate information to individuals that intentionally or unintentionally support or undermine their motivation to pursue their goals (Oyserman, Lewis, et al., 2017, Psychological Inquiry).

We have also been examining how people make meaning of the difficulties they experience in life, and how those meaning-making processes influence, and are influenced by groups and organizations (Lewis, Sekaquaptewa, & Meadows, 2019, Social Psychology of Education), and broader social structures (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2017, Contemporary Educational Psychology) such as the neighborhoods people grew up in (Lewis & Yates, 2019, Perspectives on Psychological Science). Studying these meaning-making processes in this multi-level way has provided two tremendous benefits. First, it has allowed us to gain greater theoretical insights about how society communicates messages that affect the mind, and how the mind affects behaviors that have implications for society. Second, these insights have been useful for generating testable predictions for strategies that can inform interventions to improve outcomes and reduce group-based disparities in domains such as health (Lewis & Oyserman, 2016, Behavioral Science & Policy) and education (Oyserman & Lewis, 2017, Social Issues and Policy Review).

Our current research in this line is examining the situated identity processes I just described in the domain of environmental sustainability, particularly as that domain intersects with education and health disparities. My collaborators and I are beginning to explore how and why messages about the environment, climate change, and sustainability are interpreted differently by sub-groups of the American population (Hall, Lewis, & Ellsworth, 2018, Journal of Environmental Psychology), and the consequences of those interpretations for people’s motivations to engage in behaviors that have implications for our collective future.

II. Context-Sensitivity and the Utility of Behavioral Science Interventions.

The second, more meta-scientific, line of my research systematically examines “context-sensitivity” in social and behavioral science research. One issue in the social and behavioral sciences is that many of our findings are rather context dependent – if we find an effect in situation A it may not occur in situation B. Context sensitivity is not inherently a problem – social life is complex and thus we should expect context to influence results. The problem is that, for a variety of reasons, we cannot always reliably predict which contextual variables are essential for detecting an effect. To borrow from persuasion and social influence scholar Carl Hovland, we do not always know who needs to say what to whom and with what effect for a message to reach its intended audience; if we do not know that, it becomes difficult to develop (and scale) effective interventions (Lewis, under review; *Ruisch, Lewis, & Ferguson, revise & resubmit, Nature Human Behavior). My hope is that more knowledge about the precise conditions under which social phenomenon occur can not only improve our theories, but also make behavioral science research more useful for practice (Earl & Lewis, 2019, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; Goroff, Lewis, Scheel, Scherer, & Tucker, 2018, PsyArXiv). To address this theoretical and practical issue, we have begun systematically examining context sensitivity in the realm of behavioral science interventions (Lewis & *Michalak, in press, Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology), and plan to continue doing so in the years to come.

* indicates graduate students

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