Center offers a place for psychologists to collaborate

A group formed by a psychology professor and supported by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) has provided both moral and financial support to several faculty members, resulting in new studies into how culture and society affects human behavior.

It is precisely the kind of collaboration that is so rare within psychology, where researchers are scattered among various sub-disciplines and often do not get a chance to work together, said Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto.

A photo of Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto.

Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto.

He formed the Center for Human Culture and Behavior in 2009 following ORSP's Faculty Research and Creative Activities Retreat. The group subsequently received a $42,000 grant from ORSP, much of which was passed along to members to further their research. The group met during the semester to review and provide comments on members' upcoming publications or grant proposals.

"My idea with the Center was to provide a way in which other psychology faculty members could be corralled around a certain theme and brought together to discuss their ideas, talk about their research, and find avenues of publishing their work," Matsumoto said.

Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella received some of the ORSP funding and said it allowed him to conduct new research. Morsella studies how the brain resolves the conflict between competing actions, and the money paid for equipment that could better measure and analyze brain waves. The new data helped him move his research into the area of "working memory," a category that includes instructive actions such as repeating a phone number to oneself before dialing it.

Much of Morsella's research was done in collaboration with other members of the Psychology Department. Since 2010, he has published 33 papers as a result of research funded by the Center, in journals such as Consciousness and Cognition, Neurocase and Psychological Inquiry.

"Without the Center none of that research would have been possible," said Morsella, who also served as the Center's assistant director. Even more than monetary support, he added, the Center has also provided a place to get feedback and input from colleagues or even a heads-up about a journal that is looking for certain kinds of articles.

Associate Professor of Psychology Ryan Howell, who studies happiness, also received funding from the Center that he says was key to publishing his work. Getting survey-generated research published without a substantial sampling of adults is difficult, Howell said. Money from the Center was used to recruit adults across the nation to take an online survey measuring how buying experiences to impress others impacts happiness. His findings -- that those who do so are no happier than those who spend their money on material objects -- were published earlier this year in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

"We don't need a million dollars to do research, but organizations that provide grants have a tendency to give us either huge awards or no money at all," Howell said. "For someone like me, having $5,000 or $10,000 can have a huge impact.  A small amount of money can make a difference in whether or not something gets published."

Matsumoto, whose own research explores emotion and facial expressions, said his main role as director of the Center was to provide support to his colleagues, for example by providing feedback on papers or grant proposals.

The funding from ORSP has ended, but the Center will continue to be a place for faculty interested in studying human culture and behavior to meet, share ideas and support each other, Matsumoto said.

"Many faculty are inundated with teaching classes and going to meetings and doing all the other things we need to do. Research, scholarship and thinking about new, creative ideas gets put on the back burner," he said. "Having a resource like the Center is tremendous for people who are trying to further their research."

This is the fourth in a series of articles highlighting institutes, centers and faculty affinity groups formed during the Office of Research and Sponsored Program's spring 2009 Faculty Research and Creative Activities Retreat. The next Research and Creative Activities Retreat will be held in the J. Paul Leonard Library on Jan. 23 and 24. To learn more or to reserve space for an affinity group, visit

-- Jonathan Morales