SASSC The Expert Interview
December 1, 2015

Today’s Expert
Wendy Berry Mendes

Interview by:
Erik Nook
Harvard University

Thanks very much for offering to speak with me.   Why don’t you start by telling us about the focus of your current research.

My research, in general, focuses on one idea, which is that hot affective states—whether we call them stress, emotion, or motivation—trigger changes in the brain and body, and that cascade of physiological changes influences people’s decision-making and behavior.  That’s the basic model, and then under that there are lots of different offshoots.

For example, we study how people experience and respond to feelings of discrimination.  What are the mental states that people feel when they were rejected because of something that they cannot control—like the color of their skin—or something that presumably one could control —like their weight.  We then ask how does the experience of discrimination or rejection “get under the skin” to affect health directly or indirectly by increasing health-damaging behaviors.

We also do a lot of work examining how emotions that are experienced in one person can be transmitted or “caught” by another person.  This line of research has taken the lab from a focus on studying individuals or an individual paired with a confederate to studies that examine two participants at a time interacting with each other.  This current work seeks to understand how one person’s affective response can influence somebody with whom they’re interacting. The interaction partners could be someone they just met or their closest significant other, like a romantic partner or child.  By looking at how emotion is experienced within dyads, we start understanding how people come to know each others’ minds, how we understand others, and how we’re influenced by those around us.

And you can imagine one expanding this framework further to study group dynamics.  One study that we’ve been conducting for several years now is among surgical teams.  We arrive at the hospital the morning of a scheduled surgery and place sensors on the entire surgical personnel, and we look at the extent to which this group starts to have shared physiological responses during the surgery.  We ask questions like: Is the most dominant person in the room the person who is most likely to set the emotional “temperature” of the group, and how does this emotional contagion affect surgical outcomes?

This is very exciting work!  I have so many follow-up questions.  One thing that I’m wondering about is the observation that your work seems to straddle the divide between basic and applied work.  Where do you see yourself along that dimension?

This is the greatest thing that happens when you become more senior: you can expand from a narrowly defined role that you assume as a junior academic.  You can move along many dimensions of roles rather than staying in a single space. I tend to encourage junior scholars—graduate student and postdocs—to become experts at a very basic, deconstructed area.  That’s how we learn to become good experimentalists.  Then as your career develops, you can expand from that area. I have always one foot in a very experimental lab-based topic area, and I’ve never gotten away from that.  That’s always going to be a core part of who I am.  But as time has gone by, I try to make the connection to fieldwork: connecting what I’m doing in the lab to human behavior, free-range in the world.  In that way, I’m thinking about what I’m learning in the lab and how that can be used in real-world situations.

Sometimes that translational connection isn’t obvious to me, but it might be more obvious to other people who think in more translational or applied ways.  But sometimes it is obvious to me, and when it is I always want to triangulate a lab result with something that happens in a real-world setting.

So I would probably say that I’m always changing my position on that continuum.  It depends on the study.   Sometimes I do very basic laboratory work, but I do also do more translational studies.  I don’t know if I’d ever say that I do “applied work,” because I think this has such a negative connotation among emotion researchers that I think it’s stigmatizing, even though it shouldn’t be.

In some ways, it sounds like you’re sketching out a developmental progression for researchers.  It seems that you’d encourage students to focus on a very precise question that then can blossom and broaden as we get older.  Would you suggest some strategy for people who want to start in a very broad mindset?  How should we as growing affective scientists handle very broad questions that we might have?

I think that there’s a delicate balance here because just like there’s a downside to being too broad and focused in the beginning, there’s also a downside to being so well trained at really deconstructing and going down to nitty-gritty levels of precision that you almost forget the big picture. There are downsides to both extremes.

I don’t think it’s a problem to start with a translational question, but there’s always going to be an entry point for any profession where you have to crawl or walk before you can run.  I can see that in lots of different examples.  When a postdoc comes into my lab for the first time, we have a full suite of just about every toy and doohickey you can imagine to measure peoples’ sweat, neural activity, muscle movement and blood flow—we can measure it all—but if I get a postdoc who doesn’t have any background in psychophysiology or neuroscience, I don’t say “Here are all the toys, let me teach you everything.”  Instead, I say: “Why don’t you become an expert at one thing, really get this down, and then we’ll build from there.”

In almost everything, I think there’s a real benefit in putting in a stake somewhere and saying “I’m an expert at this, this is what I do very well.”  Then you have to ask yourself how much bandwidth do you have to learn another method well or conquer another theoretical discipline like a true scholar would. There’s limited time, people have different bandwidths, and you just have to figure out within all these possibilities, what can you learn really well, and when should you try to recruit an expert collaborator rather than trying to master the topic or method yourself.

The best part of being in this profession is that you are not stagnant.  I’m not the same researcher I was 5, 10, or 15 years ago when I started graduate school.  I study different topics and use an expanded set of methods because I keep collaborating with interesting people who teach me a ton. I push myself to learn something new, but I also give myself permission to not learn everything, even if I want to somehow intersect with the topic. I’ve learned that I need to find a good collaborator, be ok with just knowing enough, and then never presenting myself as an expert.

Interesting.  It sounds like we’re all growing and changing as academics, and it also sounds like you’ve found a lot of inspiration from your collaborators.  I’m intrigued, what are your other sources of inspiration?  When do you have those “aha” moments?

I definitely love smart collaborators.  They are what give your day energy and excitement, but I also find inspiration in other unlikely sources. I can think of two other sources of inspiration, one of which you might find surprising.

For the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of journal editing.  Initially I agreed to be an Associate Editor at Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and then a few years later I accepted a position as a Senior Editor at Psychological Science because I thought being an Editor was part of our obligation.  I felt like it’s unfair when people’s default is to say “no” to service requests, which seems selfish to me.  Maybe it is my army-brat upbringing, but my sense is that it is part of our responsibility to give back to a system that we ask so much of. So I initially begrudgingly agreed to be an Editor, and assumed I would do my time and then be done with it.

Instead, I find editing to be one of the most exciting and satisfying aspects of my academic career, and a major source of inspiration. This is especially true at Psychological Science, because I read so much exciting good work from outside my specialty area.  Much of the work I read doesn’t get published in Psychological Science—with an 80% triage rate, and up to half of those that do go out for review don’t get accepted, so this isn’t surprising.  However, I feel like I get to read everyone’s very best work.  I also read very broadly as a senior editor.  I’m not just reading social, personality, and psychophysiology, I’m reading language studies, visual perception, evolutionary psychology, so I get this huge breadth of research, and people’s best work sometimes at its earliest stages.  So that’s been an incredible source of inspiration and excitement as an academic.

The other more obvious source of inspiration is attending conferences.  I’m one of those people who think of conference attendance as part of my job.  My job at the conference is to hear things and go to talks in areas that I’m not going to typically read.  I force myself to go to the symposia that are not directly in my field, so that I’m not hearing the same people talking about the same work that I know very well. Instead I try to attend symposia to hear about work just outside of my primary area.  In learning about it, I expand my own horizons.  So those are probably my favorite three sources of inspiration.

Those are great!  Another related question I have is who should we be reading as young affective scientists? 

That’s a great question, but in our discipline we think too much about names.  William James, Gordon Allport, Leon Festinger, we’re trained to think in names.  Here’s my idea of a scientific utopia: we memorize theories and ideas and stop memorizing names.  I could name names, but I actually wish we read more of our related fields.  I’ll give you examples.

Biological anthropology is a treasure trove of brilliant ideas.  It’s really translational in its approach and examines many of the same processes that we care about.  Often your card-carrying psychologists don’t know biological anthropology at all, yet we intersect with them on many concepts: race, discrimination, group processes, cooperative behavior, morality, stress, and emotion.  However, we never seem to get into the sandbox to work and play with them.

So instead of focusing on names, I think we need to read just outside of our field a little bit more.  Sometimes I think we’re doing the same kinds of studies, yet we aren’t learning from these related disciplines.

That’s an excellent answer, because I was also going to ask about which “out of our own field” presentations we should go to at conferences, but you just answered that question.  To ask a different question, you’re obviously doing incredible work, you’re at an amazing institution, and you’ve worked at so many great places doing top quality research.  Here’s a tricky question for you: to what do you attribute all of these successes?

I’ll say this: it’s really easy to look at any tenured faculty and just see the successes.  You just see all the good things that have happened.  Our CV is a collection of all our successes, and what we really should have is a CV of all the things that have failed, all the rejections, all the grant denials, all the interviews, awards, and jobs we didn’t get.  I wish that CV existed because it would make all of this seem so much more accessible when you’re early in your career and you only see the “wins” of tenured faculty.  I can’t imagine there’s a tenured faculty out there who hasn’t experienced a lot of rejections.

So you’re right I’ve been very lucky and had a lot of successes, but I’ve also had lots of failures.  I didn’t get into graduate school the first year I applied.  I thought I had done everything right, and I didn’t get in—not a single place.  The school that I did get into the second year, which I ended up going to, I was waitlisted there. I didn’t even get in!  I then applied as a fifth year graduate student for jobs, and I was offered a couple positions, which I turned down so I could do a postdoc.  In the first year of my postdoc I applied for jobs again and didn’t get a single interview.  So here I had gone from getting jobs to nothing.  I thought: “In one year’s time, what did I do differently?”  Then the next year I applied, I did get job offers.  So I think the takeaway is that as much as somebody wants to tell you their linear trajectory—how everything came into place—there’s a lot of ugliness and failures on the path of one’s career.

Why was I successful?  Maybe it is in part because I have a thick skin, which wasn’t something I was born with, it’s something that I developed over the years.  And when I hit obstacles in psychology, I tended to be more persistent and tenacious.  However, at the same time I try to figure out what is a lost cause.  I tell my students: “The only difference between being tenacious and delusional is the outcome.”  When you’re in it, you don’t know which one you are!  Maybe I’m just completely delusional that a certain paper will ever be accepted, or maybe I’m tenacious. Each person has to figure out what they are going to stick with and what they will call a lost cause.

Whenever I get a paper rejected, I always take the comments seriously, I get some distance from the paper, I read it again, and think: “Is this something that I’m proud to have out there?  Is it worth trying to get it published?”  Then I’ll make the decision whether it will be revised or if I will put it away in the file drawer.  I really try to be honest with myself and not invest too much in my ideas or any one paper.  I try to have those moments of reflection.

So much of what you’re saying resonates with things that our field cares about, like grit and growth mindset.  It’s so interesting to think about how studying psychology allows us to apply what our own field is producing.

Yes!  If I had to choose the top quality I look for in prospective grad student or postdocs, it would be grittiness.  My second top quality is a growth mindset. When I was in graduate school a faculty member said to me: “You can’t teach someone how to write, they either can write or they can’t.” It turns out that not only did I not think that was true, I have observed many people become better writers during grad school, postdoc positions, and as faculty. One can always be a better writer and to assume that how you write at 24 is how you will write at 44 is misguided, to say the least. So write, write, and write more. Read books about writing, talk to people about how they write, and read great writers. You can always become a better writer.

Let’s have one more question, but I’ll give you two to choose from: what kind of advice would you give to graduate students working towards a career in affective science, or what do you wish you knew when you were a graduate student?

Both of those are really good; I’ll take the second one and then maybe circle back to the first.  Many graduate students I know are too hard on themselves in the beginning.  I wish I had used the emotion regulation strategy of time perspective, where you think of yourself in the future.  My first paper rejection was so painful, I wish I had the benefit of knowing that—in the long run—there would be more good than bad.  I think it’s so easy to be hard on yourself.  I was really discouraged in the beginning because it’s not an easy road.

When I first started in graduate school, learning psychophysiology, the very first participant I ever ran took two hours to go through a one-hour paradigm because I was so slow, the sensors were sticky, and I was so nervous.  I remember it like those entire two hours were in slow motion, and I thought: “How am I going to run 120 participants and write a paper before I graduate in 5 years?”  It seemed like that was insurmountable at the time, and that created a lot of fear and uncertainty.  I also saw a lot of very smart senior graduate students not get jobs.  There was just a lot of fear at that time.  If I think about how those years shortened my telomeres and accelerated my cellular aging, I wish I had not been so worried and hard on myself!

So I guess my advice to graduate students and postdocs is to remember that there will be something that happens when it will be your time. You might end up with a lot of doors in your face, but there will be something that you find that will fit well.  I am the least metaphysical person that you ever meet, so I am not saying that outcomes are “meant to be” but rather our unique human ability to reappraise and make sense of whatever happens is adaptive and self-protective.  I think that’s the good news: we are adaptable and the job you find will end up seeming like a good fit.

As I say to my postdocs, when you survey psychologists with PhDs who go into non-academic fields, they report being much happier than those who go into academic fields.  So why is there so much pressure to go down an academic path?  It’s because of the people you’re surrounded by.  It’s not because of money.  It’s not because of happiness.  I think it’s important to give people permission to think about different possibilities for themselves.  That would have taken a lot of pressure off of me thinking: “How am I going to get to the next phase?”

I really like that perspective.  I agree that we will all end up think we’re where we’re supposed to be, and I agree that that’s likely because of our ability to reappraise.  You know, cognitive dissonance is our friend! 

Yes, that adaptation is a really good thing, so we should be happy about it.  If people want to say that it was “meant to be” or whatever, that’s fine, too.  That’s one way to put it, but it’s probably because of our ability to adapt.

Amazing.  Well let’s wrap up there.  Thank you so much for your time.  It’s been a pleasure speaking with you!  I’m sure students will appreciate your thoughts and advice.

It’s my pleasure!