Interview with Molly Ogunyemi, Summer Session Participant

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VW: Tell me about your research.

MO: My primary interests are in interdisciplinary studies that can contribute to scholarly dialogue and mutual enrichment between philosophical anthropology and other sciences. (For example psychology, neurosciences, communication sciences and managerial sciences).

I am intrigued by themes of unity and coherence in lives, narrative philosophy, virtues and habit formation, and the philosophy of psychotherapy techniques.  I would like to develop youth formation programs. The main philosophical themes behind my research in recent years are topics of virtue, happiness, meaning of life, unity of life and narrative self-understanding as a tool for self-improvement over time.
During conversations with many people, both at work and in casual settings, we often raised questions about the meaning of life and happiness. I had studied philosophy out of personal interests as a medical student and even more for a few years after medical school while working in different hospitals. My interests in these topics led me to enroll in short courses in philosophy during my holidays in a private institute outside my university. I came to see the importance of having a deeper understanding of the human being in his totality in order to be able to offer solutions to age-old problems which are still actual today. These include questions about one’s personal identity, finding meaning in life, the benefits of virtues for living a happy life and the motivation to continue working on difficult tasks or in uncomfortable situations in view of a greater good which is achieved from persevering in those activities. I realized that studying philosophy as I did was not an option that everybody around me had and I decided to dedicate more time to this study with the hope of transmitting whatever I learn to others who study different sciences or conduct highly specialized research which gives little opportunity for detailed philosophical instructions.
In addition, I think that the need for interdisciplinary studies is ever increasing and urgent since the development of particular sciences that promote human flourishing requires understanding the human being as much as possible.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar? 

MO: I am looking forward to learning from the speakers and my co-participants and to sharing my experience with people who approach topics that are my primary research interests from different perspectives. It will be interesting to meet some of the speakers whose writings I have read. For example, I have read and studied the works of Dan P. McAdams for my doctoral thesis.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

MO: My hobbies include reading novels, singing, sewing, cooking and talking with people and listening to them. I also enjoy taking part in aerobic exercises, volunteer work/service projects in rural areas. I enjoy excursions, discovering new places and learning about cultures that are different from mine.

 

Interview with Timothy Reilly, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Timothy Reilly is Postdoctoral Research Associate in developmental psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

 

Timothy Reilly: I’m an Indiana native, originally from Muncie. I began my studies in Bloomington, Indiana, completed my doctorate in California. After that I returned to Bloomington, moved to Muncie, and finally arrived at Notre Dame. I still miss the scenery and weather of the Bay Area, though I am enjoying life back in the Midwest.

 

VW: What are your research areas? Why?

 

TR: My research addresses moral development and positive development from a variety of perspectives. My training is primarily in the fields of developmental psychology and the learning sciences. My graduate research focused on purpose, self-development, and well-being in the transition to adulthood. My current research is a survey and interview study of virtue in laboratory research and ensemble music, as part of a larger project on virtue in practices.

 

I engage in this work in order to understand how best to foster a wide array of individuals’ potential and self-development. In this, I seek to understand both the general patterns that are beneficial, broadly speaking, and the need to account for particularities in individuals’ needs, interests, and capacities. Originally this interest in potential focused on talent development. More recently, however, my interests have been drawn to the centrality of relationships, within families, schools, and other institutions, in facilitating or frustrating self-development and well-being. I am especially fascinated by the way that, for many, the self is most fully expressed, and is most fully fostered, in service to transcendental ends.

 

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

 

TR: I am looking forward to the opportunity to engage with scholars who bring a variety of perspectives. It is important to me to continually ask new questions and to push at the boundaries of my knowledge. I am especially interested in discussing various conceptions of how virtue is developed and discussing the forms that self-transcendence and well-being take at different points in development and in different domains.

 

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

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TR: Outside of my work, I enjoy swimming, cycling, and hiking. I also enjoy reading and board games.

Interview with Jane Klinger, Summer Session Participant

Jane Adair Klinger.jpgThis post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Jane Klinger is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Waterloo at Ontario and visiting scholar at The Ohio State University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Jane Klinger: I’m originally from Washington Grove, Maryland, and am currently a grad student at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario- though I’ve been working from Columbus, Ohio (at OSU) since the Fall.

VW: Tell me about your research.

JK: My research is in social psychology and focuses on self-regulation and motivation and, especially, how these relate to well-being outcomes like perceived meaning and authenticity. A central question of my research is about the trade-offs of top-down control: when does it keep us in touch with our values versus actually alienate us from our values? The latter is most interesting to me, partly because it so often goes unrecognized- how the same processes that allow us to succeed in self-control conflicts can also make us rigid and insensitive to our own values; essentially, reinforcing the letter rather than the spirit of our own laws. I’m coming to appreciate more and more how much insight on this topic comes from areas far outside my own discipline (e.g., Taoism, management science)- and indeed this is a large part of what excites me about learning from this multi-disciplinary group.

VW: What are you looking forward to for the upcoming seminar?

JK: I’m looking forward to a lot about this seminar, but most broadly: thinking in a different way (learning the language of other disciplines), challenging my assumptions, and meeting thoughtful people with common interests.

VW: What are your interests outside of academia?

JK: Other things I like to do are run, write, and make art. I also recently started a book club, which has thankfully gotten me to make more time for leisure reading.

Interview with Andrew Christy, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Andrew Christy is a graduate student in social  and personality psychology at Texas A&M University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Andrew Christy: I am from the small town of Greenwich in upstate New York. I lived in Greenwich all my life until going to college at SUNY Geneseo in western New York, and I am now doing my graduate work at Texas A&M University.

 

VW: Tell me about your research.

AC: My research broadly deals with existential psychology and the psychology of well-being, with a particular focus on self- and identity-related processes by which people deal with existential concerns and experience well-being. I study these topics using the methods of social and personality psychology. I ended up in this research area because I was very excited by the questions of meaning and the good life that I encountered in my undergraduate philosophy minor, but I was not optimistic about my ability to provide substantive philosophical answers to these questions. Instead, I study how laypeople answer these questions for themselves, and I have found this to be a very satisfying union of my interests in philosophy and psychology.

 

VW: What are you looking forward to for the upcoming seminar?

AC: This summer, I am most looking forward to meeting other scholars who take different approaches to studying the same topics that interest me. I think I will learn a lot and I hope to come away from the seminar with some new friends in addition to new knowledge!

 

VW: What are your interests outside of academia?

AC: My non-academic interests include cats, hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities, and playing blues and folk music on the lap steel guitar.

When babies identify meaningful cultural differences

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Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on August 19, 2016 as “Babies Watching People Eat”.

You may not be surprised to learn that food preference is a social matter. What we choose to eat depends on more than just what tastes good or is healthful. People in different cultures eat different things, and within a culture, what you eat can signal something about who you are.

More surprising is that the sociality of food selection, it turns out, runs deep in human nature. In research published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I showed that even 1-year-old babies understand that people’s food preferences depend on their social or cultural group.

Interestingly, we found that babies’ thinking about food preferences isn’t really about food per se. It’s more about the people eating foods, and the relationship between food choice and social groups.

While it’s hard to know what babies think before they can talk, developmental psychologists have long capitalized on the fact that babies’ visual gaze is guided by their interest. Babies tend to look longer at something that is novel or surprising. Do something bizarre the next time you meet a baby, and you’ll notice her looking intently.

Using this method, the psychologists Zoe Liberman, Amanda Woodward, Kathleen Sullivan and I conducted a series of studies. Led by Professor Liberman, we brought more than 200 1-year-olds (and their parents) into a developmental psychology lab, and showed them videos of people visibly expressing like or dislike of foods.

For instance, one group of babies saw a video of a person who ate a food and expressed that she loved it. Next they saw a video of a second person who tried the same food and also loved it. This second event was not terribly surprising to the babies: The two people agreed, after all. Accordingly, the babies did not look for very long at this second video; it was what they expected.

But when the babies saw the second person do something less expected — when this second person instead hated this same food that the first person loved — the babies looked much longer.

In this way, we were able to gauge infants’ patterns of generalization from one person to another. If babies see someone like a food, do they think that other people will like that food, too? And if so, do they think that all people will like the same foods, or just some people?

 

We found some surprising patterns. If the two people featured acted as if they were friends, or if they spoke the same language, babies expected that the people would prefer the same foods. But if the two people acted as if they were enemies, or if they spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

It was as if cultural lines were being drawn right in the laboratory. And in the babies’ minds there seemed to be something special about the link between culture and food: When the babies saw people liking and disliking inedible objects, we didn’t observe the same patterns of results.

One thing you may be wondering — and we were, too — is whether this is all about the foods people like. Whether you like grits or kale may depend on cultural identity. But there are some things that are disgusting to all humans, regardless of culture. Do babies intuitively know this?

Indeed, they seem to. When the babies in our studies saw a person act disgusted from eating a food, they expected that a second person would also be disgusted by the same food — regardless of whether or not the two people were in the same social group.

We also discovered something interesting about what babies identify as meaningful cultural differences. Babies from monolingual English-speaking homes saw language as a marker of different cultures; as noted above, if two people spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

In contrast, babies from bilingual homes assumed that even two people who spoke different languages would like to eat the same things. Thus babies have the potential to learn different things about the foods and people around them, depending on their social environments.

Parents of young children may want to take note of our findings. Infants are not just learning to eat the foods they are given; they are also learning by watching adults eat, and figuring out who eats what foods with whom. By introducing babies to social contexts in which adults make healthful food choices, parents may help children learn the cultural norms of healthful eating themselves.


Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Multilingual exposure improves children’s social abilities

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Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on March 11, 2016, as “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”.

Being bilingual has some obvious advantages. Learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences. But in recent years, psychology researchers have demonstrated some less obvious advantages of bilingualism, too. For instance, bilingual children may enjoy certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function — which is critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.

 

Now, two new studies demonstrate that multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.

 

One study from my developmental psychology lab — conducted in collaboration with the psychologists Boaz Keysar, Zoe Liberman and Samantha Fan at the University of Chicago, and published last year in the journal Psychological Science — shows that multilingual children can be better at communication than monolingual children.

 

We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars — small, medium and large — but were in position to observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s “medium.”

 

We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.

 

Interestingly, we also found that children who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language — for example, those who had grandparents who spoke another language — were just as talented as the bilingual children at this task. It seems that being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are spoken, rather than being bilingual per se, is the driving factor.

 

You might wonder whether our findings could be explained as just another instance of the greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been observed to have. We wondered that, too. So we gave all the children a standard cognitive test of executive function. We found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children, but that the kids who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language did not. These “exposure” children performed like monolinguals on the cognitive task, but like bilinguals on the communication task. Something other than cognitive skills — something more “social” — must explain their facility in adopting another’s perspective.
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In a follow-up study, forthcoming in the journal Developmental Science, my colleagues and I examined the effects of multilingual exposure on even younger children: 14- to 16-month-old babies, who are hardly speaking at all. In this study, led by Zoe Liberman and in collaboration with Professor Keysar and the psychologist Amanda Woodward, babies were shown two versions of the same object, such as a banana, one of which was visible to both the infant and an adult, the other visible to the baby yet hidden from the adult’s view. When the adult asked the baby for “the banana,” the baby might hand her either object — both were bananas, after all — yet if the baby understood the social context, he would reach more often for the banana that the adult could see.

 

We found that babies in monolingual environments reached equally often for the two bananas. Babies in multilingual environments, including those who were exposed to a second language only minimally, already understood the importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication: They reached more often for the banana that the adult could see.

 

Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding. Of course, becoming fully bilingual or multilingual is not always easy or possible for everyone. But the social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the benefits of multilingualism.


Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk podcast: “Early learning about food is really learning about people” – Katherine Kinzler

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Cornell University Katherine Kinzler discuss her work in child food preferences (with collaborators Zoe Liberman, University of California, Santa Barbara; and at the University of Chicago, Samantha Fan, Amanda Woodward, Boaz Keysar); and how working with scholars in our project across the fields of psychology, philosophy, and theology has impacted her approach to thinking about her research.

Next week on The Virtue Blog, we’ll post related writing by Kinzler.

Katherine Kinzler | Virtue Talk

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Katherine Kinzler (left) with Candace Vogler at our June 2016 working group meeting.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.

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