My research expertise is in the area of Self and Self-processes. I am particularly interested in people’s expectations about the future and how expectations persevere and change in the face of challenging information. I also explore how people respond when they receive challenging information. My research specifically focuses on three areas: 1) optimism, risk perceptions and behavior, 2) fluctuations in future outlooks, and 3) maintaining desired self-views.

Optimism, Risk Perceptions & Behavior

People often display comparative optimism in their judgments, believing that they are less likely than others to experience negative events and more likely than others to experience positive events. Comparative optimism occurs for a variety of events including likelihood judgments for car accidents, illnesses, suicide, and having gifted children and a good first job. My research on comparative judgments addresses: 1) why people display comparative optimism, 2) what moderates comparative optimism, 3) how stable are comparative risk judgments across time and events, 4) does comparative optimism primarily reflect a distortion in personal estimates (personal optimism) or a distortion in target estimates (pessimism for others), and 5) what are the consequences of the comparative optimism for affect, cognition, motivation and behavior.

Fluctuations in Future Outlooks

Although people are generally optimistic about the future, my research shows that they will shelve their optimism when they anticipate a possible challenge to their optimistic outlook. The shift from optimism sometimes can reflect an adjustment in response to new information, but often reflects a response to the possibility that things may not turn out as hoped. Along with Pat Carroll and Kate Sweeny, I propose that both of these explanations for shifts in future outlooks serve the large goal of preparedness. Preparedness is an adaptive goal state of readiness to respond to uncertain outcomes. Preparedness can involve being equipped for setbacks should they occur, but also a readiness to capitalize on opportunity should it knock.

Maintaining Desired Self-Views

I have conducted a number of studies examining how people avoid, distort, and dismiss unwanted and threatening information. By so doing, they are able to sustain desired self-views. Most of my research in this area has examined strategies such as self-handicapping – the tendency to to proactively set up barriers to performance – and the self-serving bias – the tendency to claim personal responsibility for positive outcomes but not for negative outcomes. Currently I am examining how people will sometimes avoid potentially threatening information altogether. For example, people may delay or avoid getting a medical test and thereby can remain blissfully ignorant of possible medical problems.

Other Projects

I am also pursuing three additional lines of research that are closely (although perhaps not obviously) tied to the description of my research above.

Barriers to Screening for Mouth and Throat Cancer

Although mouth and throat cancer is easily treatable if detected early, the mortality rate for mouth and throat cancer is marked higher among African Americans than European Americans because of differences in rates of screening. With funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, I explored psychological barriers to screening among rural African Americans. One barriers emerging in our research thus far centers around information avoidance. If you see articles in dental health journals in my publication page, they reflect work I did with this funding.

Religiousness and Risk Behavior

Religious adolescents are less likely than non-religious adolescents to engage in a variety of risk behaviors such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, but we have no idea why. Dr. Wendi Miller, my postdoc, and I received a large grant from the Templeton Foundation to explore how religiousness eventuates in lower risk behavior. We are exploring a theoretical model we developed that proposes numerous routes by which religiousness leads to lower risk behavior. Go the Adolescent Opinion Survey to learn more about this project. The website is thin at the moment because we are in the early stages of data collection. However, as we collect more data, and proceed with data analyses, we will report our findings. This research stems directly from research I have done on risk perceptions and behavior.

Smokers’ Responses to Genomic Risk Feedback

In collaboration with Dr. Isaac Lipkus at Duke University and several other colleagues, I have funding from the National Cancer Institute to examining how smokers respond to genomic feedback regarding their cancer risk. Roughly 50% of smokers lack a particular gene (GSTM1) and, as a result, are more susceptible to lung cancer risk. We are examining interest among college smokers in learning genomic risk feedback and how they respond to learning that they have versus lack the GSTM1 gene.

Undergraduates Interested in Working in My Lab

*Application to do Research*

My research requires help from of a lot of people. Below are students currently working in my lab.

Top: Joy Losee, Monica Novack, SiLing Li, Nick Campanella, Tatiana Raevsky, Gabbe Pogge. Bottom: Lauren Halpert, Tori Burstein, Shannon Mathew, Nikolette Lipsee, James Shepperd (not pictured: Kimberly Janiszewski).


I recruit new students to work in my lab in late fall and late spring. Undergraduates interested in working in my lab should send me an email, the earlier the better! I have five criteria in selecting undergraduate research assistants:

  1. Must be an upperclassman (sophomore or higher).
  2. I require a two-semester commitment (Fall and Spring, or Spring and Fall).
  3. Must be outgoing and extroverted.
  4. Cannot have an outside job or commitment during the week.
  5. Must have done well (B+ or better) in social psychology (sop3004).

Research assistants are responsible for running participants in studies, helping with the development of study materials, helping with piloting study materials, and entering and proofing data.

If you are interested in working in my lab, please download the application form, complete it and bring when we schedule an interview. Or, you can send it via email.

Past Students

Undergraduate students working in my lab have gone on to lots of other places. In recent years I have had students from my lab enroll in…

  • Law schools (e.g., Boston University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Columbia University, University of Florida)
  • Medical schools (e.g., University of Florida)
  • Masters programs in psychology (e.g., Eastern Tennessee University, Florida State University, Georgia State, Georgia Southern University, LeHigh University, NYU, Tennessee State University, University of North Dakota, University of North Florida, Wake Forest University, Vanderbilt)
  • Clinical and Counseling Psychology Doctoral Programs (e.g., Penn State University, University of Florida, University of Mississippi, University of North Texas, University of South Florida, SUNY Albany)
  • Doctoral programs outside of Psychology (e.g., Columbia University, Harvard University, University of Florida)
  • Social Psychology Doctoral Programs (e.g., UC Berkeley, Cornell University, Ohio University, Ohio State University, University of Chicago, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Houston, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin, Washington University, UC Riverside)

Graduate Students & Postdoctoral Fellows

I have five graduate students working in my lab. The graduate students are, Rachel Forsyth (1st year), Liz Kerner (1st year), Nikolette Lipsey (5th year), Joy Losee (5th year and also working with Greg Webster), Gaby Pogge (5th year).

Rachel Forsyth Liz Kerner Nikolette Lipsey Joy Losee Gaby Pogge