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Two stars of the social sciences join USC

Pamela Johnsonby Pamela J. Johnson
Norbert Schwarz and Daphna Oyserman (Photo/courtesy of CASBS at Stanford University)
Photo: Norbert Schwarz and Daphna Oyserman (Photo/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. The two arrive from the University of Michigan.

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

“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,” said Garrett, senior vice president for academic affairs. “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.”

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.

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

Internationally known for her research on self, culture and motivation, Oyserman is among the most frequently cited researchers in the fields of self and identity. 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.

“Norbert Schwarz will bring tremendous expertise to the interdisciplinary study of the interplay of feeling and thinking in judgment and decision making,” said USC Dornsife Dean Steve A. Kay. “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 and 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, he 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 he or she asks 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 will also have a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education on its educational psychology team.

“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.”

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

Oyserman serves as the 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.