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Q & A with 2019 Dissertation Award Winners

Laura Elenbaas and Tyler Colasante briefly describe their dissertation research, how their dissertations were funded, how they came up with their dissertation ideas and more.
By Laura Elenbaas and Tyler Colasante

Laura Elenbaas: 2019 Dissertation Award Winner

Brief summary of dissertation:

Laura Elenbaas My dissertation reflects part of my ongoing work on children's perceptions of social and economic inequalities. The set of three studies examined children's perceptions of economic disparities in access to educational opportunities, decisions about whether to correct or perpetuate similar inequalities in familiar peer scenarios and expectations for whether others would do the same. Between middle childhood and early adolescence, children's decisions differed as a function of social-cognitive (i.e., stereotypes), family (i.e., income) and experimental factors. The findings, now in press at Child Development and Developmental Psychology, highlight the moral salience of economic exclusion for children and underscore the need for continued research on the factors that enable children to reject conventions that limit access to resources on the basis of economic status.

How did you come up with the idea for your dissertation research?

I had been interested in children's attitudes towards peers of different backgrounds for some time. In my dissertation, I used an experimental design to bridge children's everyday experiences with broader societal patterns of inequality.

How did you fund your dissertation research?

I was fortunate to fund my dissertation research with an APA Dissertation Research Award, an APF Graduate Research Scholarship and a SPARC grant from my department at the University of Maryland.

What advice would you give to grad students who are proposing or working on their dissertation?

When I first started thinking about my dissertation topic, I was anxious to design a huge study that would answer every important question about kids' perceptions of economic inequality. My PhD mentor, Melanie Killen, encouraged me to re-conceptualize my dissertation as part of my overall program of research, stemming from ideas I'd been working on and leading to future areas of inquiry. That was very helpful advice, so I'll pass it along here.

What are you working on now?

I'm an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. In my lab, we study how children think about people and the social world. We focus on developing concepts of fairness, perceptions of social groups and peer relationships. Some of the topics we're investigating right now include children's perceptions of social inequalities, experiences of social exclusion, the development of stereotypes and reasoning about rights.

Tyler Colasante: 2019 Dissertation Award Winner

Brief summary of dissertation:

Tyler Colasante The study of guilt has a rich, albeit relatively dark, history in psychology. The works of Freud and Erikson cast significant shadows over its psychological functions, characterizing it as an exaggerated fear of doing something wrong. Alternatively, evolutionary psychologists argue that guilt evolved as a critical emotional compass to govern our social behavior and help us maintain harmonious ties with others. As a graduate student, I was interested in exploring the adaptive characteristics of guilt. I quickly noticed that very few studies had ventured deeper into the mechanisms and complexities of guilt in early life to explain how it emerges and begins to offset problematic social behaviors like aggression. This spurred the three studies of my dissertation.

For study one, I investigated the physiological building blocks of children’s guilt responses while they imagined harming others to achieve desirable objects. Those who were more physiologically responsive to the desirable objects and less physiologically responsive while harming others went on to report less guilt and were rated by their parents as more aggressive. Guiltier, less aggressive children were able to regulate their initial arousal in response to the desirable objects and channel it towards feeling bad while harming others.

For study two, I hypothesized that guilt would help five-, eight- and 12-year-olds with low heart rates avoid aggression because children with low heart rates lack arousal, and guilt is often more cognitively infused (i.e., involves more thinking and less affective arousal) than other emotions. Indeed, children with lower heart rates were more aggressive, but not if they had high levels of guilt. In lieu of arousal cues, a firm cognitive grasp of right, wrong and others’ feelings may help children with underarousal navigate social conflicts away from aggression.

For study three, I tracked children’s anger and aggression for 10 days and developed a new statistical method to isolate spikes in anger above each child’s norm. I then tested whether children high in guilt were less likely to pass their anger–aggression tipping points. Children were much more aggressive on days when their anger hovered above their typical anger level. However, spikes in daily anger were less likely to trigger aggression for guilt-prone children, suggesting that guilt redirects or quells anger before it manifests as aggression. 

How did you come up with the idea for your dissertation research?

Prior to graduate school, I worked in community service and spent a considerable amount of time helping children write apology letters to their victims. A lot of the children struggled with expressing and characterizing their remorse, and I noticed that these difficulties were rooted in their broader difficulties with emotional expression and regulation. Children who had a better handle on their emotions were more likely to develop guilt over their actions. These experiences served as the foundation for my graduate work on the intersections of guilt and regulatory abilities across childhood. 

How did you fund your dissertation research?

I was fortunate to receive scholarships and funding from the Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, University of Toronto and my supervisor, Tina Malti, PhD. 

What advice would you give graduate students who are working on their dissertation research?

For those just beginning, I think it is important above all to choose a topic that you feel deeply invested in. This choice makes the long haul of graduate studies more enjoyable and will help you leave a personal mark on the field above and beyond those before you. For those working on or nearing the end of their dissertation, try your best to keep things simple and remain aligned with the original goals set out at the beginning of your dissertation. Mastering the details is integral to good science, but it is equally important to step back from time to time and maintain levels of feasibility and focus that allow you to finish and fulfill the broader goals of your dissertation. 

What are you working on now?

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. My work is delving deeper into the physiological and neurobiological mechanisms of guilt and aggression. I am also applying for assistant professorships and hope to expand my burgeoning research program to experiences of shame in adolescence, particularly in the context of recent surges in adolescents’ social media usage.