Wendy Wood Gives New Meaning to "Old Habits Die Hard"
Wood, passionate and articulate about her research, is a highly regarded social psychologist who studies attitude and behavior change with an emphasis on the influence of habits on behavior.
Like it or not, we all have standard patterns of behavior — good and not so good habits — that are difficult to change even if we are fortunate enough to recognize them.
Ask yourself this question. Do you eat heavily buttered popcorn at the movie theatre, or maybe crave both salt and sugar in front of the big screen — perhaps a box of Milk Duds or Starbursts to complement your super-sized bucket of popcorn? If so, you may be acting on standard patterns that have been acquired through experience and that are triggered by cues in the environment.
Wood, in collaboration with Research Assistant Professor David Neal, recently completed a study on eating habits that demonstrates these cuing mechanisms. They showed movie trailers in a theater to two groups of people — one group got fresh popcorn while the other got stale, week-old popcorn. After the movie trailers, the researchers collected the popcorn containers and weighed them. The results showed that participants with a movie-popcorn habit ate the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. This was especially striking because these participants acknowledged that they didn’t much like the stale popcorn.
“What this shows is that these people ate in response to being in a movie theater. Although we might think that we eat because food tastes good, we sometimes eat habitually,” Wood explained. “We’re in the same place with the same food as in the past, and we are cued to eat. ”Along with her colleagues, she brought popcorn into a lab where people were watching music videos. This time, participants with movie-popcorn habits ate little of the stale popcorn, indicating that being in an environment that did not cue popcorn eating produced a different outcome.
Wood also conducts research on gender differences in behavior with a focus on their evolutionary origins. “This issue is hotly debated in science right now,’ Wood noted. “Along with my colleague and former graduate advisor Alice H. Eagley, a USC College Distinguished Visiting Professor in Social Psychology, I have been working on a theory of the origins of gender differences in behavior.”
The crux of their ideas is that men’s and women’s roles in societies are a dynamic product of the sexes’ biological attributes — men’s greater size and strength and women’s reproductive activities of pregnancy and lactation — and local cultures and ecologies. In this view, humans have evolved to respond flexibly to local circumstances, and this flexibility is evident in how men’s and women’s roles vary across societies.
Wood will teach an introductory social psychology course in spring 2010. “I look forward to this class that offers most students their first exposure to thinking about people in a social context,” she said. “The class will cover aggression, health and behavior, personal perception, stereotypes, as well as what makes people good partners and fall in love with each other.”
Earlier positions held by Wood included director of the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University. “Our descriptor was ‘catalyze innovative research in the social and behavior sciences across all disciples,’” which included the college, business and health. She also was the Associate Vice President for Research at Texas A&M University charged with integrating faculty research and graduate and undergraduate courses across the university in social and behavioral sciences. In particular, she established several common methods classes and promoted faculty working together across disciplines.
Wood was attracted to USC both for its reputation as a top research and teaching institution and for the great people she met on campus. She also accepted the position for personal reasons: “I love California; my parents live here; and my husband is an urban planner — and you need him here.”
Wood is a founding member of the Society for Research Synthesis Methodology. Since the 1980s, she has employed a research technique called meta-analysis, which is a statistical method of integrating individual findings across whole literatures. Next year, she plans to teach a class in meta-analysis, and she hopes that students across the College will be interested in taking it.
Wood is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. She also will teach consumer behavior courses in the Marshall School of Business.