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Psyched Up

Joining the USC Dornsife Department of Psychology in January, Norbert Schwarz and Daphna Oyserman will open the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center.

By Pamela J. Johnson
September 20, 2013

Norbert Schwarz will be Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing and Daphna Oyserman will be Dean’s Professor of Psychology, and professor of psychology, education and communication. Photos courtesy of CASBS at Stanford University.

Norbert Schwarz will be Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing and Daphna Oyserman will be Dean’s Professor of Psychology, and professor of psychology, education and communication. Photos courtesy of CASBS at Stanford University.

USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett has announced the appointment of Norbert Schwarz as Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing and Daphna Oyserman as Dean’s Professor of Psychology, and professor of psychology, education and communication.

Beginning their posts in January 2014, Oyserman and Schwarz, who are married, will open the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center at the Verna and Peter Dauterive Hall upon the hall’s completion. Championed by Garrett, Dauterive Hall will be USC’s first interdisciplinary social sciences building. At the hall, faculty and students university-wide will tackle the most pressing social problems affecting our region and global community.

Schwarz’s research focuses on human judgment and cognition, including the interplay of feeling and thinking. He examines the socially situated and embodied nature of cognition — and how basic cognitive and communicative processes impact public opinion, consumer behavior and social science research.

An American Academy of Arts and Sciences and German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina member, Schwarz is among the most frequently cited researchers in social psychology and consumer psychology. His publications include 20 books and approximately 300 journal articles and chapters.

Among the most frequently cited researchers in the fields of self and identity, Oyserman is internationally known for her research on self, culture and motivation. Using experimental and field-based methods, she explores how culture and identity shape, and are shaped by, individuals and contexts. Her research focuses on identity-based motivation and its cognitive and behavioral consequences. Her publications include about 130 journal articles and chapters and she is currently completing a book project.

“Professor Oyserman and Professor Schwarz are renowned scholars on the cutting edge of interdisciplinary work in the social sciences, providing approaches to some of society’s most challenging problems,” USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett said. “Their sophisticated research bears practical applications in a variety of settings from the role of emotions in decision making to the effect of identity formation on academic outcomes.

“Their arrival raises USC’s profile in the quantitative social sciences and will have a far-reaching impact across all disciplines and professions.”

USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay is thrilled to have two esteemed psychologists joining the university’s faculty.

“Norbert Schwarz will bring tremendous expertise to the interdisciplinary study of the interplay of feeling and thinking in judgment and decision making,” Kay said. “Daphna Oyserman brings in her rich background on the research of self-identity and its consequences, and shows the positive outcome of intervention. Their Mind and Society Center will advance the field of social sciences and make a great impact on society.”

For example, Oyserman’s work shows how cultural mindsets and identities can be engaged to improve life outcomes, including academic performance, mental and physical health. Her research demonstrates that when these mindsets and identities undermine rather than bolster goal pursuit, the result is less effort in school. Students are then tempted to procrastinate or engage in negative behaviors.

“Behavior is a function of the meaning we make of our circumstances,” Oyserman said. “You can put the same task in front of someone, and they can decide, ‘I can do this, the world is my oyster.’ Or they can decide, ‘Why knock myself out? This is too hard, I’m going to turn my attention elsewhere.’

“No one wants to live a lousy life,” she said. “Children want to do well in school, find good careers and contribute to society. We focus on the factors that prevent this from happening, things like thinking that the future starts later or misinterpreting experienced difficulty as meaning that a school task is not for you or that effective strategies like asking for help aren’t for you.”

Schwarz’s research also points out some of the factors that prevent people from succeeding. In one area of study, Schwarz proposes the “feelings-as-information” theory, which conceptualizes the roles of subjective experiences — moods, emotions, metacognitive experiences and bodily sensations — in judgment.

When people make judgments about something, they rely on their feelings as diagnostic information. Although this generally produces accurate responses, people sometimes make mistakes about the source of this information, Schwarz said.

For instance, people in a good mood tend to evaluate situations more positively than when in a bad mood. People report higher life satisfaction when they are in a good mood on a sunny day and lower life satisfaction when they are in a bad mood on a rainy day. However, if the interviewer mentions the bad weather before they ask the life satisfaction question, this mood effect disappears. People will then attribute their current mood to the weather rather than their life satisfaction.

“Whenever people become aware that their feelings may be due to an incidental source, the informational value of the feeling is discredited and people turn to alternative inputs to arrive at a judgment,” Schwarz said.

Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business, and vice dean of social sciences at USC Dornsife, said Schwarz and Oyserman’s research is central for the social sciences at USC.

“By illuminating the ways in which people’s subjective experience is influenced by the society in which they live, their research addresses basic questions about the human experience,” she said. “Having researchers of their caliber here at USC provides opportunities for high-level collaborations across the social sciences. Their work is fundamental to research in many fields, and this is reflected in their many joint appointments, with business, communication and education.”

Oyserman takes the research to a new level, emphasizing that intervention at any age is key to changing judgments that hold people back. Students will focus more and perform better when they change their perception that difficulty means they can’t perform a task. Rather, they can come to realize that important tasks are difficult for everyone and are worthwhile.

In one published paper, Oyserman offered an explanation for poor educational outcomes among certain populations. In a seven-week program called “School-to-Jobs” for eighth graders in predominantly black and Latino schools, Oyserman staged an intervention.

She aimed to instill in students the awareness that they already had within themselves many skills enabling them to succeed. They engaged in small-group activities aimed at three key ingredients: (1) Making their future feel psychologically relevant to the present, (2) making strategies like doing homework feel identity-congruent, like something a student like them would do, and (3) framing experienced difficulty as a signal of task attractiveness.

Even two years later, the student participants demonstrated measurable changes not only in their grades, but in their behavior in and out of school. For instance, a decrease in in-class disruptiveness, more time devoted to homework and fewer unexcused absences. These changes took place even with students with low parental involvement.

Oyserman will have a joint appointment with the USC Rossier School of Education. She will teach and conduct research with USC Rossier faculty in educational psychology. 

“Daphna Oyserman’s work is perfectly aligned with the mission of the Rossier School, which seeks to improve learning in urban education locally, nationally and globally,” said Karen Symms Gallagher, Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of USC Rossier. “She is an internationally renowned scholar on learning and motivation, particularly for high need students, and we are delighted that she will be joining our faculty.”

The two will arrive from the University of Michigan. Schwarz is Charles Horton Cooley Collegiate Professor in the Department of Psychology, and professor of business. He is also research professor at the university’s Institute for Social Research.

Schwarz is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science; American Psychological Association; German Psychological Association; Society for Consumer Psychology; Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Other honors include the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize of the German Department of Science and Education for early career contributions; the Wilhelm Wundt Medal of the German Psychological Association; the Thomas M. Ostrom Award of the Person Memory Interest Group, and the inaugural Rackham Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award of the University of Michigan.

Oyserman is Edwin J. Thomas Collegiate Professor of Social Work, professor of psychology, research professor at the Institute for Social Research, and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

Some of her honors include being a W.T. Grant Faculty Scholar (1995–2000), a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (2009–10), and a Humbolt Prize recipient (2009). She is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science; the American Psychological Association; the Society for Experimental Social Psychology; and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. She was a consulting editor for both Developmental Psychology and Social Work Research. She twice received the Society for Social Work Research Best Scholarly Contribution Award (2004 and 2009) for her research on racial identity and its consequences for academic outcomes and health.

Both professors said they were happy in Michigan, but were extremely impressed with what USC Dornsife had to offer.

“When we came to USC, we were thrilled by the excitement in the air and the seriousness of purpose,” Oyserman said. “We were impressed with the fundraising leadership at the provost and deans’ levels. USC wants to make social science research matter. At USC, we know we can make a societal impact.”