James Madison University

Psychology Major Receives Stipend for Harvard Research

By: Lori News
Posted: October 10, 2014

PHOTO: Chris Deitrick and colleagues

As a psychology student interested in the diverse opportunities offered by research assistant positions, imagine getting the chance to work in one of the most prestigious universities in the country. This became a reality for one JMU psychology student.

Thanks to a stipend from Psi Chi, the psychology national honor society, Christopher Deitrick, a senior psychology major was able to spend this past summer at Harvard working on a research project exploring Construal Level Theory. CLT is a social psychological theory that describes the relation between psychological distance and the extent to which people’s thinking is abstract or concrete.

In other terms, CLT shows how psychological distance affects the way in which we think about something. This distance can be measured through space, time, social distance (how similar you feel to someone or how much you like someone) and hypothetical distance (how likely something seems).

For novices in the social psychology realm, Deitrick explained CLT using a simple forest example. He explained that when you are thinking about a forest that is not physically in front of you, you are only thinking about this big landscape filled with greenery. However, if you are 10 feet away from the forest you see the details of the fallen trees, bark and leaves. This implies that if you are seeing things on a much more detailed level, it’s really going to bias what you choose to focus on if the distance is really great versus a smaller distance.

So why is CLT important for us to understand?

Deitrick says, “CLT really is applicable to you all the time. You’re constantly thinking about things either in a psychological near or distant way. When you become familiar with a theory you notice it everywhere in your life and in your constant thinking. CLT is worth researching because it is so broad that it covers everything that you’re thinking about.”

He first became interested in pursuing this research opportunity when Dr. Jaime Kurtz, psychology professor, received an invitation to apply for a summer lab research project with Dr. Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University for the summer of 2013.

“I was very impressed by Chris and felt confident that he could be a great addition to Dan Gilbert's lab,” Kurtz said. “I mentioned volunteering in this lab as a possible summer opportunity for him, and he really did the follow-up work to make it happen. His proactive nature is one of his greatest assets.”

Last summer Deitrick was accepted, along with 20 other research assistants, to participate in a CLT research lab on a volunteer basis.

 “CLT just happened to be the topic and I got the chance to learn a lot about it. And I found it really interesting so I was pretty excited to go back and do more work on it,” he explains.

With the help of his mentor, Dr. Kurtz, he decided to return to Harvard this past summer. He spent two months working 35-hour weeks researching with a close-knit group from all over the world.

“The social environment there was really rewarding and it was a huge part of why I decided to go back in the first place,” Deitrick said. “I got to be close to this really diverse group of people from Canada, Spain, Israel and Turkey; it’s a surprising international experience and I got to meet a lot of interesting people.”

Some examples of the types of research projects Chris and his group conducted included: CLT as it relates to social comparisons (when and why we choose to compare ourselves to people around us) and CLT as it relates to risk taking. His research suggests that when thinking about the long-term implications people are more likely to think the risk is worth taking.

He explains, “Thinking about this on a regular basis you start to see it in so many places and it has given me a lot of ideas for new research topics and a better intuitive understanding of why people behave the way that they do.”

The research Deitrick and his group worked on will contribute to the publication of certain social psychology papers.

“Chris is a natural researcher,” Kurtz said. “He understands research methods, is a deeply theoretical thinker, a careful experimenter, and thinks deeply about the implications of research findings. He also has demonstrated a keen interest in topics relating to social psychology, decision making, and well-being, all of which were compatible with this project.”