How are everyday interpersonal relations influenced by past relationships with significant others?
My research interests span a number of areas in social psychology (social cognition), personality, and clinical; and my central research focus concerns the above question.
This primary line of research examines mental representations of significant others, their structure in memory in relation to the self, and what my colleagues and I have termed the social-cognitive model of transference. The research combines idiographic (participant-sensitive) procedures with experimental designs to track the manner in which significant-other representations are activated and used in relation to new people. In particular, the research has shown that when the process of significant and other activation occurs, one makes inferences about the relevant, new person deriving from the significant-other representation. Moreover, a positive or negative evaluation of the new person also occurs, deriving from the overall affective tone of the representation. Indeed, a whole variety of complex affects, motivations, expectancies, behaviors, and self-changes may occur in relation to this new person -- based on the transference process and on the content of one’s relationship with the particular significant other. This research demonstrates the long-standing clinical concept of transference; it does so in social-cognitive terms; and it shows that the process of transference is basic and triggered in everyday interpersonal relations. It provides a road map for how past relationships influence the present, highlighting the interpersonal nature of self, and emphasizing the role of significant others in identity formation and change.
A secondary line of research involves the question: How do private and covert aspects of self -- the internal thoughts, feelings wishes, and fears experienced but not necessarily expressed -- play a role in self definition? Our research has shown that these experiences play a profound role in self-definition relative to more "objective" overt behaviors. Moreover, research examining both significant-other representations and the self in these terms shows a rather similar pattern of knowledge acquisition and use concerning significant others, presumably grounded in our motivation to know or "believe" we "know," the internal life of significant others, even with limited direct knowledge.
A tertiary line of research asks: What role do conceptions of the future suffering play in depression and hopelessness? This line of research shows that depression involves coming to believe that the future is certain to consist of continued suffering, and also the formation and use of a future-event schema that permits relatively automatic predictions about the future that are pessimistic, and which may then, perhaps, perpetuate depression. Because rumination about the future clearly occurs in depression, repeated practice in attempting to predict the future may be what solidifies into future-event schemas among depressives.
Finally, an interest in identity and potential identity change based on new significant-other relationships, such as with a new set of peers or a mentor, has culminated in a literature review on youth outcomes deriving from efforts to make a contribution to the broader common good, through working together with others, taking responsibility, and expressing caring across inter-group boundaries. The positive growth outcomes of educationally integrated experiences in social action (service learning in K-12 and higher education) are considered in terms of policy implications.