Research Topics

Our lab conducts research on motivation and the self, broadly investigating the cultural and personal consequences of the human existential condition. With that goal in mind, our work touches on the consequences of humans’ awareness of their impermanence, freedom and autonomy, feelings of isolation, and strivings for a sense of meaning and significance.

Although not exclusively, much of our research utilizes terror management theory (TMT) as a vehicle. This theory initially addressed two relatively simple questions: Why do people have such a great need to feel good about themselves, and Why do people have so much trouble getting along with people who are culturally different from themselves?

Yet, since its inception in 1986, the theory has generated much empirical research into the nature of self-esteem motivation and prejudice as well as a host of other human social behaviors. To date, hundreds of studies conducted in over 20 countries, and on every continent, have explored topics ranging from creativity, to sports fandom, political leadership preferences, and health, and have examined self-esteem, aggression, stereotyping, needs for structure and meaning, depression and psychopathology (e.g., phobias, prone-ness to PTSD), political preferences, sexuality and attraction, romantic and interpersonal attachment, self-awareness, unconscious cognition, martyrdom, religious belief, group identification, disgust, human-nature relations, risk taking, and legal judgments, among many others.

Of late, our lab is particularly focused on trying to understand the role of such psychological mechanisms in:

  1. Growth vs. defensive orientations; or, how existential motivation can lead people to do socially helpful and/or personally fulfilling things, such as donate to charities, support their communities, engage in artistic and creative acts, feel happiness and meaning in life, and explore novel ideas and seek personal growth experiences.
  2. Religious and non-religious orientations; or, how existential motivation can potentially lead to expressions of religious faith under some conditions, but not others.
  3. Post-traumatic stress experiences; or, how existential motivation and well-being might be altered among people who have experienced severe stressors and other severe challenges to their previously-held cultural belief systems.

A related, albeit more minor, focus of our lab is directed at understanding the motivational consequences of the experience of freedom. Psychological science has learned much about how people perceiving restrictions on their freedom push back and assert themselves to regain their freedom (e.g., reactance). But on the other side of that coin, despite having been explored in great depth by existentialist philosophers, psychological science still knows relatively little about the possible motivational consequences of being faced with one’s own personal freedom.

We build on classic existential philosophy and psychological theory, and take the perspective that although people may sometimes ineffectively manage their freedom, under certain circumstances they may be motivated to manage their freedom by, for example, following social consensus or cultural norms, pre-empting opportunity for choice (e.g., via self-handicapping), or supporting certain forms of leadership. We are currently focused on further understanding the underlying motivational mechanisms and the overt social consequences associated with the freedom experience in consumer behavior, health decision-making, and political and workplace leadership preferences.

 separ logo transparent