Research


Jason Plaks1.  One central line of research in my laboratory investigates how people’s underlying assumptions about personality and behavior influence their cognition and motivation.  This interest is expressed in three sets of studies.

a.  Lay theories about the fixedness or malleability of personality.  We have consistently found that people who believe that personality is fixed (“entity theorists”) tend to understand people’s actions (including their own) in terms of broad, underlying traits or stereotypes.  Several studies have shown that these people engage in selective attention and memory distortion to screen out information that contradicts their trait-based views other people or themselves.  In contrast, people who believe that personality is malleable (“incremental theorists”) show greater openness to such unexpected information.  In current research, we have begun to explore neural process associated with these phenomena, using event-related potentials (ERPs) in my electroencephalography (EEG) laboratory.

             
b.  Beliefs about genetic variability.  My previous research on the entity and incremental theories has evolved into a new line of work that examines people’s beliefs about human genetic variation.  With the complete mapping of the human genome in 2001 it became possible to compare people’s beliefs about genetics against some sort of objective reality. Genomic data indicate that two unrelated people from the same racial group are about as similar to each other as two unrelated people drawn at random from the entire world.  Laypeople, of course, tend to see things differently.  Most people consider racial categories to be fixed, meaningful, and predictive.  In recently-begun studies, we ask the following questions:

1. Does belief in lower (vs. higher) shared genetic material predict more (vs. less) stereotyping and prejudice?
2. How does belief in lower (vs. higher) shared genetic material relate to existing measures of implicit and explicit race bias?
3. Can simply teaching people about genetics lead to less prejudice?

c.  Beliefs about what constitutes an “action”.  Another line of research investigates people’s beliefs and mental representations about actions.  This research builds on Construal Level Theory (Trope & Liberman, 2003) and Action Identification Theory (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987) in its focus on people’s construal of action in a broader, more abstract sense vs. a narrower, more concrete sense.  We have found that, after experiencing a setback, people who think about their actions in a broader sense tend to experience more intense, longer-lasting negative emotion than those who represent their actions in a narrower manner.  A related set of studies has shown that, when judging an actor’s moral responsibility, people who represent actions in a broader manner tend to focus more on the actor’s overarching goal, while people who represent actions at a narrower level tend to focus more on whether the action was performed with in-the-moment conscious intent (i.e. “on purpose”).  This latter set of studies, which begins to formalize the components of laypeople’s implicit theories of intentionality, has implications for the intersection of psychology and law.  This line of research is actively ongoing.

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2.  Another principal avenue of research examines how stereotypes affect perceivers’ own behavior. In recent studies, my colleagues and I have shown that subliminally priming people with pictures of elderly people causes them to walk slower if they view elderly people positively, but to walk faster if they view elderly people negatively. Based on these data, we have proposed a model of automatic social behavior in which behavior following category priming is influenced by the perceiver's motivation to interact as effectively as possible with the primed target member.

 

Selected Articles and Chapters


On lay theories of fixed/malleable personality:

Plaks, J.E., Levy, S.R., & Dweck, C.S. (2009).  Lay theories of personality:  Cornerstones of meaning in social cognition.  Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 1-13.

Plaks, J.E & Stecher, K. (2007). Unexpected improvement, decline, and stasis:  A prediction confidence perspective on achievement success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 667-684.

Molden, D.C., Plaks, J.E., & Dweck, C.S.  (2006). “Meaningful” social inferences: Effects of implicit theories on inferential processes.   Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 738-752. 

Plaks, J.E., Grant, H., & Dweck, C.S. (2005). Violations of implicit theories and the sense of prediction and control:  Implications for motivated person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 245-262. 

Plaks, J.E, Stroessner, S.J., Dweck, C.S. & Sherman, J.W. (2001).  Person theories and attention allocation:  Preferences for stereotypic vs. counterstereotypic information.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 876-893.

Levy, S.R., Plaks, J.E., Hong, Y., Chiu, C., & Dweck, C.S. (2001).  Static vs. dynamic theories and the perception of groups:  Different routes to different destinations.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 156-168.


On representations of action:

Plaks, J.E., McNichols, N.K., & Fortune, J.L. (2009). Thoughts versus deeds:  Distal and proximal intent in lay judgments of moral responsibility.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35.

Leach, F.R. & Plaks, J.E.  (2009). Regret for errors of commission versus omission in the near-term and far-term: The role of level of abstraction.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 221-229.


On automatic social behavior:


Cesario, J., Plaks. J.E., & Higgins, E.T.  (2006).  Automatic social behavior as motivated preparation to interact.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 893-910.  

Plaks, J.E. & Higgins, E.T.  (2000).  Pragmatic use of stereotyping in teamwork:  Social loafing and social compensation as a function of inferred partner-situation fit.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 962-974.

 

To request copies of any of these publications, please contact me at plaks@psych.utoronto.ca.