These papers focus on research on situated and social cognition. Papers are intended for educational use.


Oyserman, D., Smith, G. C., & Elmore, K. (2014). Identity‐based motivation: Implications for health and health disparities. Journal of Social Issues70(2), 206-225.

Abstract: People aspire to be healthy but often fall short of this goal. Poor health is associated with macro-level factors — social stratification and low socioeconomic position, including low education, low income, and low status racial-ethnic group membership. These social determinants differentially expose people to health-promoting (or undermining) contexts and to having (not having) choice and control over their lives. But social determinants cannot cause individual action directly. Identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2009a, 2009b) addresses this gap, articulating how social determinants operate at the micro-level to influence whether or not a behavior or choice feels congruent with important identities and how such identity-congruence, in turn, influences which strategies are chosen and how difficulty is interpreted. Lack of choice and control make an interpretation of difficulty as meaning that effort is pointless and “not for people like me” (rather than important) more likely, reducing belief that one’s action and effort matter.


Schwarz, N. & Oyserman, D. (2011). Asking questions about behavior: Self-reports in evaluation research. M. Mark, S. Donaldson, & B. Campbell (Eds.), Social Psychology and Evaluation (pp. 244-264). New York: Guilford.

Abstract: Most interventions aim at changing people’s behaviors. Accordingly, most evaluation studies include attempts to assess problem behaviors and to monitor their change over time. The questions used are usually straightforward, like these apparently simple questions about alcohol consumption: “Have you ever drunk beer, wine, wine coolers, whiskey, gin or other liquor?” and, “How many times have you had beer, wine or other liquor in the past month?” These questions were adapted from Park and colleagues (2001), but similar questions can be found in many prevention studies and government health surveys in which participants are asked to self-report on the frequency of their behaviors in a specified period of time. In posing such questions, researchers hope that participants will (1) understand the question, (2) identify the behavior of interest and (3) retrieve relevant instances of the behavior from memory. When the question inquires about the actual frequency of the behavior, researchers further hope that participants (4) correctly identify the relevant reference period (e.g., “last month”), (5) search this reference period to retrieve all relevant instances of the behavior, (6) correctly date the recalled instances to determine whether they fall within the reference period and (7) correctly add up all instances of the behavior to arrive at a frequency report. Once participants determined the frequency of their behavior, they are (8) often required to map this frequency onto the response alternatives provided by the researcher. Finally, participants are expected to (9) candidly provide the result of their recall effort to the interviewer. Implicit in these — rarely articulated — hopes is the assumption that people know what they do and can accurately report on their behavior, although they may not always be willing to do so. From this perspective, the evaluator’s key task is to ask clear questions about meaningful behaviors in a setting that allows for candid reports. Unfortunately, participants can rarely live up to these hopes. This chapter illuminates why participants’ can’t deliver what researchers hope for and aims to help researchers to develop a more realistic approach. For this purpose, we introduce evaluation researchers to the cognitive and communicative processes underlying self-reports, drawing on extensive research at the interface of survey methodology and psychology (for comprehensive reviews see Sirken and colleagues, 1999; Sudman, Bradburn, & Schwarz, 1996; Tourangeau, Rips, & Rasinski, 2000). Our discussion follows the key steps of the question answering process and addresses (1) how respondents interpret the questions asked; (2) retrieve relevant information from memory; (3) draw inferences that allow them to move from the accessible information to a plausible answer; and (4) report the answer to the researcher. Throughout, our focus is on questions about behavior. For a discussion of questions about attitudes and evaluative judgments, including issues related to assessing program satisfaction, see Schwarz (2008) and Schwarz and Strack (1999). For a discussion of the implications of cultural differences on survey responses see Schwarz, Oyserman, & Peytcheva (2010).


O’Brien, B. & Oyserman, D. (2010) The shield of defense or the sword of prosecution? How self-regulatory focus relates to responses to crime. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 1849–1867.

Abstract: People can strive to attain goals in one of two ways: They can be tolerant of risk and focus on attaining successes, or they can be intolerant of risk and focus on avoiding pitfalls and failures. These differences, termed promotion focus and prevention focus, respectively, have been related to differences in how personal goals are understood, but not yet applied to policy issues. Two studies examine the implications of chronic (Study 1) and experimentally induced (Study 2) promotion vs. prevention goals for a law-and-order mind set. Participants high in promotion focus assigned more punishment to a criminal (Study 1). Compared to prevention-focused participants, experimentally induced promotion focus increased the likelihood of arresting a suspect and justifying this choice (Study 2).


Schwarz, N., Knäuper, B., Oyserman, D., & Stich, C. (2008). The psychology of asking questions. J. Hox, E. de Leeuw, & D. Dillman (Eds.), International Handbook of Survey Methodology. (pp 18-34). Mahwah, NJ: Taylor & Francis.

O’Brien, B. & Oyserman, D. (2008). It’s not just what you think, but how you think about it: The effect of situationally-primed mindsets on legal judgments and decision-making. Marquette Law Review, 92, 150-172.

Abstract: Lawyers intuitively understand that individual differences matter for legal judgments and decision making, and that calling forth certain concepts can affect how people interpret and judge evidence. But they generally overlook the influence of mindset on those very same judgments—that is, they fail to consider how situational cues can prime a way of making sense of the world that affects how people perceive evidence and receive arguments. We present two studies demonstrating the effect of priming a particular type of mindset—a focus on either achieving success or avoiding failure—on attitudes about criminal justice policy and willingness to take action based on limited evidence in a criminal case. We then discuss other mindsets that are potentially relevant to legal judgments and decision making, offering hypotheses about their likely effects and highlighting the need for further empirical research.

Uskul, A. K., Keller, J., & Oyserman, D. (2008). Regulatory fit and health behavior. Psychology & Health, 23, 327−346.

Abstract: Everyone prefers health to ill-health, though some worry more about ill health than others and for some abstract health concerns seem to pale compared with the prospect of immediate hedonic pleasures. Two studies (n = 90, n = 70) utilized a ‘fit’ in self-regulatory focus approach (Higgins, 2000) to describe when and how worrying about health (vs. focus on hedonic pleasure) is likely to lead to distinct health behaviors. According to this model, individuals differ in their self-regulatory focus –some focus on reaching safety and security through vigilant and careful action (prevention focus) and others focus on opportunities to eagerly approach hopes and aspirations (promotion focus). We proposed that likelihood of engaging in health care-taking behaviors is higher among individuals who experience ‘prevention fit’ – who are prevention-focused and are chronically or temporarily worried about health – whereas likelihood of engaging in eagerness-related behaviors that may be detrimental to health is higher among individuals who experience ‘promotion fit’ – who are promotion-focused and chronically or temporarily experience thrill seeking. Prevention fit correlated with health care-taking behaviors (Study 1) and with readiness to engage in cancer detection behaviors (Study 2). Promotion fit correlated with using stimulants to overcome physical weakness (Study 1).


Oyserman, D. Uskul, A., Yoder, N., Nesse, R., & Williams, D (2007). Unfair treatment and self-regulatory focus. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 505-512. 

Abstract: Ample correlational evidence exists that perceived unfair treatment is negatively related to well-being, health, and goal striving but the underlying process is unclear. We hypothesized that effects are due in part to contextual priming of prevention focus and the negative consequences of chronic prevention-focused vigilance. Indeed, reasonable responses to unfair treatment – to avoid situations in which it occurs or if this is not possible, confront it head on – fit prevention self-regulatory focus response patterns. Results from three experiments support this notion. Priming stigmatized social category membership heightened students’ prevention (not promotion) focus (n = 117). Priming non-stigmatized social category membership (i.e., white) did not change prevention focus (n = 46). Priming prevention (not promotion) increased perceptions of unfair treatment (and aroused prevention-relevant fight or flight responses) in response to a negative ambiguous job situation among low and moderate income adults (n = 112).


Schwarz, N. & Oyserman, D. (2001) Asking Questions About Behavior: Cognition, Communication, and Questionnaire Construction. American Journal of Evaluation, 22, 127-160.

Abstract: Evaluation researchers frequently obtain self-reports of behaviors, asking program participants to report on process and outcome-relevant behaviors. Unfortunately, reporting on one’s behavior poses a difficult cognitive task, and participants’ reports can be profoundly influenced by question wording, format, and context. We review the steps involved in answering a question about one’s behavior and highlight the underlying cognitive and communicative processes. We alert researchers to what can go wrong and provide theoretically grounded recommendations for pilot testing and questionnaire construction.