Jessica Tracy


Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

How does it feel to be greedy? : the role of pride in avaricious acquisition (2023)

Psychologists define greed as a desire to acquire more and the dissatisfaction of never having enough (Seuntjens et al., 2015a), but studies have not examined the psychological processes that underlie and sustain this disposition. We propose that a desire to attain pride might be one emotional mechanism that promotes greedy acquisition. In this account, greedy people experience a boost of pride from acquisition but these feelings are short lived, potentially leading to the perpetual acquisitiveness characteristic of dispositional greed. In the present dissertation, I test this theoretical model, as well as its boundary conditions and implications, in 14 studies. These studies also show that the relationship between greed and pride is robust to controlling for other positive emotions, suggesting that feeling pride upon acquisition is the distinguishing factor between the emotional experience of greedy and less greedy people in this situation. In addition, I demonstrate that greedy people’s pervasive acquisitiveness cannot be explained by a deficit in affective forecasting compared to people low in greed. I also test the boundary conditions of this process finding, for example, that greedy people feel equivalent pride boosts in acquisitions received as gifts compared with those they purchase for themselves and that greedy people do not show the same pattern of pride responses to personal achievements. Finally, I summarize the findings, compare them to other models of related traits in the field, and discuss the implications and future directions of this research. Together, this dissertation proposes and tests a theoretical model that might help explain greedy people’s defining characteristic, pervasive acquisitiveness, by demonstrating how acquisition foments intense, yet ephemeral, emotional benefits for greedy people.

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The action unit imposter: head position influences social perceptions by changing the appearance of the face (2021)

Facial structure and facial expressions play a crucial role in the communication of social information, but faces are rarely perceived in isolation. Instead, observers view faces as they rest upon their physical foundation: the head. Here, I argue that head position plays a critical role in face perception by causing the appearance of the eyebrows to change— paralleling the consequences of facial expressions— without using facial musculature. As a result, although tilting the head does not involve the activation of facial muscles, it may function as an imposter of facial muscle action by changing the appearance of the face. In the present dissertation, I test and support this broad account, and demonstrate its widespread generalizability, across 16 studies. First, in Chapter 2, I (a) provide evidence that a downwards head tilt increases perceptions of dominance, (b) demonstrate that this effect occurs by changing the apparent V-shape of the eyebrows, in particular, and (c) rule out the possibility that any of the other previously proposed mechanisms are viable explanations for observed effects. In Chapter 3, I test whether the AU imposter mechanism is likely to be a universal feature of human visual cognition, by assessing its impact on social perceptions among the Mayangna – members of an unindustrialized small-scale traditional society who have minimal exposure to North American culture. In Chapters 4 and 5 I demonstrate that the AU imposter mechanism systematically influences social perceptions of emotionally expressive faces, alongside neutral faces – including perceptions formed from expressions of anger (Chapter 4) and happiness (Chapter 5). Finally, in Chapter 6 I review the existing body of evidence in support of the AU imposter mechanism, outline theoretical and applied implications of the AU imposter, and provide avenues for future inquiry. Together, these six chapters outline how and why the head should be considered a platform for universally communicating salient interpersonal information via the face, and one that can drastically alter, and in some cases categorically change, the message communicated from both neutral and expressive faces.

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Define, measure, repeat: an application of the iterative measurement-theory link to distinct positive emotions (2017)

Social and personality psychologists strive toward theory advancement—or the derivation of truthful and applicable statements about human behavior—while often neglecting the methods that support those theoretical conclusions. In Chapter 1 of this dissertation, I discuss a two-stage process outlining how researchers’ measurement decisions are inextricably linked to the theoretical conclusions drawn from individual studies. Stage 1 involves formulating an initial definition and measurement tool for a construct, and Stage 2 involves placing this construct within a nomological network of other constructs. Stage 2 is typically followed by iteration back to Stage 1, when the construct is re-formulated based on the findings from Stage 2. In Chapters 2 and 3, I use this two-stage process as a lens through which to analyze individual constructs of humility and happiness, describing research that constitutes a second iteration through Stage 1 of the measurement-theory cycle. In Chapter 2, I propose a revised definition of humility, showing that humility consists of two dimensions (appreciative and self-abasing humility), whereas prior formulations have measured only one dimension mirroring appreciative humility. In Chapter 3, I propose a revised definition of happiness in the context of discretionary spending on experiential and material purchases, demonstrating that explicitly measuring momentary happiness portrays material things in a more favorable light than has prior work which has measured afterglow happiness. In Chapter 4, I use the two-stage process as a lens through which to analyze the field of subjectively experienced distinct positive emotions, describing research that constitutes a second iteration through Stage 1 of the measurement-theory cycle and a second foray into Stage 2. Specifically, I construct bottom-up definitions and measurement tools for each positive emotion currently studied in the literature based on lay experience, and present the interrelations among these emotions. In Chapter 5, I reflect on lessons learned by comparing a wide range of literatures through the lens of the measurement-theory cycle, and I outline an agenda for the field of distinct positive emotions, which would build on the work presented in Chapter 4 and progress toward the ultimate goal of constructing a universal taxonomy of basic positive emotions.

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The causality of moral judgments: new insights into the reasoning versus intuition debate (2017)

During the cognitive revolution, moral judgment was seen as primarily caused by conscious language-based reasoning. At the start of the twenty-first century, a new science of morality arose, which suggested that automatic intuitions primarily cause moral judgments. More recent research has called into question the evidence for intuitive morality, supporting the possibility that conscious reasoning is critical for generating moral judgments. The aim of my dissertation is to examine the importance of intuition versus language-based reasoning for generating moral judgments. To do so, I tested a) whether interfering with the primary physiological component of disgust has causal consequences for moral judgments and b), in a split-brain patient, whether processes in the language-dominant left hemisphere are critical for generating moral judgments.More specifically, I tested whether disgust is causally related to moral judgments. To do so, I pharmacologically inhibited disgust responses to moral infractions and examined effects on moral thinking. Findings demonstrated that the antiemetic ginger (Zingiber officinale), known to inhibit nausea, reduces feelings of disgust toward non-moral purity-offending stimuli (e.g., bodily fluids), providing evidence that disgust is causally rooted in physiological nausea (Study 1; Study 5 ruled out an alternative explanation for this effect). This same physiological experience was causally related to moral thinking: ginger reduced judgment severity toward purity-based moral violations (Study 3) and eliminated the tendency for people higher in bodily sensation awareness to make harsher moral judgments (Study 4). Effects were consistently restricted to moderately severe stimuli and to purity offending stimuli: ginger had no effects on harm-based judgments (Studies 2 and 6). Together, findings provide the first evidence that disgust can be disrupted by an antiemetic and that doing so has consequences for purity-based moral judgments.Next, I examined in split-brain patient J.W. whether the right hemisphere, preferential for processing an agent’s intentions, can make typical moral judgments when informationally disconnected from the language-dominant left. I found that processes in the language dominant left hemisphere are not critical for the right hemisphere to generate adult-typical intent-based moral judgments (Study 7).Overall, findings provide renewed support for the importance of intuitive processes in generating moral judgments.

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The Mating/Parenting Trade-Off: Evidence and Implications (2017)

According to the biological principles of life history theory, there is a fundamental trade-off between mating effort and parenting effort. The five studies reported here (N = 3,439) tested two conceptually distinct ways in which that trade-off might manifest at a psychological level of analysis. Studies 1 and 2 focus on developmental processes and individual differences in the chronic activation of the mate acquisition and parenting motivational systems. Studies 3, 4, and 5 focus on temporary activation and inhibition of the mate acquisition and parenting motivational systems. The primary results of Study 1 (n = 305) suggest that men who express a greater desire to engage in short-term mating behavior have a less intense nurturant parental response to infants; Study 2 (n = 2252) revealed similar inverse relations, this time among both men and women (as well as parents and nonparents). Study 2 additionally noted a positive correlation between short-term mating orientation and chronic protective parental tendencies. Results from Study 3 (n = 92) indicate that the temporary arousal of a parental care-giving motivational state consequently inhibits self-reported inclinations toward short-term mating; this effect was only found in women. Results from Studies 4 (n = 308) and 5 (n = 482) suggest that temporary arousal of a mate acquisition motivational state consequently inhibits self-reported tender emotional responses towards infants. No consistent sex differences were noted in this latter result. Results of Study 5 additionally suggest that the temporary arousal of a disease- and predator-avoidance motivational states consequently inhibit self-reported nurturant emotional responses towards infants as well. No consistent sex differences were noted in these effects. Taken together, the present research yields results consistent with hypothesized psychological manifestations of the mating/parenting trade-off. But the present research also yields additional results that pose a challenge to these seemingly straightforward hypotheses, suggesting that a more nuanced approach must be taken to understand how the mating/parenting trade-off might manifest psychologically.

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The Pride Learning Bias: Evidence that Pride Displays Cue Knowledge and Guide Social Learning (2014)

Humans learn a great deal by copying knowledgeable others, but how do individuals determine which social group members have knowledge that should be copied? I argue that the pride nonverbal expression functions to signal expertise and knowledge, and thus to bias learning such that proud others are more likely to be copied. In Study 1, I tested, and found support, for an automatic association between pride displays and knowledge. In Studies 2 and 3, I used different methods to establish the existence of a pride learning bias, which is motivated by a heightened desire for knowledge. That is, I found that pride-displaying confederates are copied significantly more frequently than those displaying other expressions, and that this occurs only when learners are financially motivated to find correct responses, suggesting that pride expressions bias social learning in a functional manner. Study 4 showed that this tendency to copy pride-displaying others transfers to other domains than the domain where pride was originally displayed, suggesting that the expertise of the individual displaying pride generalizes to other areas. In Study 5, I tested the universality of this bias by exploring whether Fijians in a small-scale traditional society demonstrated it; results were inconclusive. In Studies 6 and 7, I tested the automaticity of the bias, and found that participants do not need to be aware of having viewed pride displays in order to show preferential copying behavior (Study 6); however, these results might be due to an automatic bias to attune to positively valenced expressions, rather to pride in particular. Similarly, results were inconclusive regarding whether the pride learning bias occurs efficiently, without the need for working memory (Study 7). Finally, I performed two meta-analyses on the data collected in Studies 2A and 3-7, which supported my earlier conclusions. Together, the findings indicate that pride displays are functional for observers and play a critical role in social learning, and begin to shed light on the nature of this mechanism.

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Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank (2013)

The pursuit of social rank is a recurrent and pervasive challenge faced by individuals in all human societies. Yet, the precise means through which individuals compete for social standing remains unclear. Chapters 2 and 3 addressed this question and examined the impact of two fundamental strategies—Dominance (the use of force and intimidation to induce fear) and Prestige (the sharing of expertise or know-how to gain respect)—on the attainment of social rank, among a group of individuals who interacted over a collaborative group task. Consistent with this theoretical framework, the adoption of either a Dominance or Prestige strategy promoted perceptions of greater influence as rated by both group members and outside observers, higher levels of actual impact over the group’s decision-making (Chapter 2), and increased visual attention from observers whose gaze was monitored with an eye-tracking device (Chapter 3). Subsequent studies explored the ethological underpinnings of these rank-attaining strategies by examining the verbal styles and nonverbal behaviors displayed by Dominant and Prestigious individuals during the group interactions. Detailed behavioral coding revealed that whereas Dominance was signaled through intimidating and self-entitling verbal styles and spatially expansive and aggressive postural displays, Prestige was signaled through socially attractive and self-deprecating verbal styles and confidence-signaling nonverbal movements (Chapters 4-5). Furthermore, Dominant individuals signaled their formidability by lowering their vocal pitch during the initial minutes of the group interaction (Chapter 6). In contrast, Prestige was not systematically associated with alterations in pitch. Collectively, these studies demonstrate that Dominance and Prestige are independent yet both viable strategies for ascending the social hierarchy, and are each underpinned by distinct, theoretically predictable patterns of verbal styles and nonverbal behaviors.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

The psychology of followership: how group conflict influences preferences for leaders (2022)

A growing body of research suggests that humans likely evolved to use two distinct strategies to acquire social rank: dominance and prestige (e.g., Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, & Henrich, 2013; Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). Dominance is characterized by the use of aggression to induce fear and coerced followership, whereas prestige involves the display of expertise and knowledge to gain admiration and freely chosen deference. Little is known, however, about the factors that influence follower preferences for these different kinds of leadership. We propose that group conflict dynamics contribute to follower preferences, such that followers exhibit a stronger preference for dominant leaders during intergroup conflict, due to these leaders’ willingness to use aggression against outgroups, and a stronger preference for prestigious leaders during intragroup conflict, due to prestigious leaders’ perceived ability to resolve conflicts. We conducted three pre-registered studies (N = 979) to test this account. Studies 1-3 manipulated perceptions of group conflict using hypothetical scenarios and assessed follower preferences for dominant and prestigious leadership in each situation. Results supported our hypotheses, showing that followers preferred dominant leaders during intergroup, compared to intragroup, conflict; and prestigious leaders during intragroup, compared to intergroup, conflict. In Study 3 we further found that these preferences are partly driven by the different group goals that become salient during each kind of conflict. Finally, in a fourth pre-registered study we tested two hypotheses emerging from these findings: (1) Dominant and prestigious leaders should strategically manipulate followers’ perceptions of conflicts so as to make their own leadership style seem more effective, and (2) These manipulations should be observable in the language leaders use when speaking to followers. Using archival data from U.S. presidential speeches, Study 4 provided initial evidence to support these hypotheses: presidents high in dominance and prestige (based on ratings made by expert U.S. historians) used distinctive language in their State of the Union Addresses potentially to increase the salience of the group conflicts for which their own leadership style is preferred. Together, these studies provide new insights into how group context and follower preferences work together to influence dominant and prestigious leaders’ status acquisition.

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A paradox of pride: hubristic pride predicts strategic dishonesty in response to status threats (2019)

Hubristic pride predicts both anti-social, norm-violating behaviors and high social status. This raises the question: How might an anti-social emotion promote social status? We propose that that hubristically proud individuals’ grandiose, inflated sense of self leads them to use strategic dishonesty to gain status after status threats. Through a series of six studies, we employ a deceptive experimental paradigm including a behavioral measure of dishonesty. Results reveal that hubristically proud individuals exaggerate their performance on a cognitive task when they believe they will subsequently work with a highly competent partner (i.e., when experiencing a status threat), but not after threats of low power, social exclusion, or inferiority to others that they will not directly encounter. Further analyses demonstrate that this effect is unique to hubristic pride and not due to shared variance with the dark triad traits. This investigation furthers our theoretical understanding of the functionality of hubristic pride; although dishonesty is always risky, when it pays off, it can result in high status and all of its consequent fitness benefits.

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Two signals of social rank: prestige and dominance associated with distinct nonverbal displays (2017)

Converging evidence suggests that generalized high rank is communicated via various nonverbal behaviors (e.g., expansiveness), but prior studies have not examined whether two distinct forms of high social rank – known as prestige and dominance –are communicated via distinct nonverbal displays. Across five studies using carefully controlled experimental designs and the assessment of spontaneously displayed behaviors during a laboratory-based group interaction and a real-world political contest, we found that these two strategies are associated with distinct sets of nonverbal behaviors. Specifically, prestige, or the attainment of rank through earned respect, and dominance, or the use of intimidation and force to obtain power, are communicated from different head positions (i.e., tilted upward vs. downward), smiling (i.e., presence vs. absence), and different forms of bodily expansion (i.e., subtle chest expansion vs. more grandiose space-taking). These findings provide the first evidence for two distinct signals of high rank, which spontaneously emerge in social interactions and guide social perceptions and the conferral of power.

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Feeling out the role of feelings in infant socio-moral evaluations (2013)

Research into infants’ socio-moral evaluations has revealed that infants prefer prosocial to antisocial individuals, as demonstrated by their reaching behaviors (e.g., Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007; Hamlin & Wynn, 2011). Although infants’ choice behaviors have been demonstrated using several distinct social scenarios, the mechanism by which infants come to prefer one type of character to another is unknown. One possibility is that infants experience distinct emotions while observing prosocial and antisocial actions, and these emotional experiences guide their social preferences. As a first step in exploring this possibility, the current research used video-recordings of infants watching puppet shows with morally relevant content (prosocial and antisocial actions) and tested whether infants display more positive emotion towards prosocial acts and more negative emotion towards antisocial acts. Across three different studies and age groups, and two different methods, results provide support for the claim that infants’ emotional displays differ when viewing prosocial versus antisocial acts.

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Listen to your pride: Informational influence of authentic pride on achievement success (2013)

Although the emotion authentic pride is thought to promote achievement, it remains unclear exactly how it facilitates concrete performance outcomes. In five studies, we tested the informational value of authentic pride in achievement contexts. Studies 1-5 showed that authentic pride fluctuates based on achievement outcomes, among individuals who had taken an achievement test—and in some cases had not yet learned their scores—and adults training for long-distance running races. Studies 3-5 demonstrated that individuals who feel low authentic pride change their achievement behaviors (e.g., exam study habits or race training plans) in an effort to attain future success, and Study 4 showed that these changes are beneficial; individuals who had performed poorly on a class exam, and who changed their studying habits in response to low levels of authentic pride, performed better on subsequent exams. Together, these studies demonstrate that authentic pride is a barometer of achievement, and that listening to one’s authentic pride facilitates optimal achievement.

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The attractiveness of emotion expressions (2012)

This research included two sets of studies examining the relative sexual attractiveness of individuals showing several distinct emotion expressions. In the first set of studies, we examined the extent to which men and women find members of the opposite sex displaying expressions of happiness, pride, and shame, compared with a neutral control, sexually attractive. In the second set of studies, we probed into the mechanisms underlying a somewhat surprising finding from the first set of studies, that male displays of shame are particularly attractive to North American women. Finally, we tested whether women’s attraction to high-status men-- a possible factor underlying the attractiveness of pride and shame—varies across cultures. Across all five studies, using different images and samples ranging broadly in age and ethnicity (total N =1273), several findings emerged. First, there was a large gender difference in the sexual attractiveness of happy displays: happiness was the most attractive female emotion expression, and one of the least attractive in males. In contrast, pride showed the reverse pattern. Second, shame displays were relatively attractive in both genders, and, among some women judges, male shame was more attractive than male happiness, and not substantially less than male pride. Third, American women at high-conception risk were less attracted to men showing shame than low-conception risk women, suggesting that male shame displays may be indicative of poorer genetic fitness. Fourth, Indian women were found to be less attracted to men showing shame than American women, further suggesting that American women’s attraction to shame-displaying men is due to socio-cultural factors. Fifth, status was found to be more relevant to male attractiveness among Indian than American women, suggesting that shame’s low-status message is less problematic for its attractiveness among American women. Overall, this research provides the first evidence that distinct emotion expressions have divergent effects on sexual attractiveness, which vary by gender but largely hold across age. These findings also provide an explanatory account of the attractiveness of male shame found among several North American samples; this pattern is best explained by cultural factors and cannot be accounted for by biological factors.

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How concerns of death affect scientific views: the existential underpinnings of support for intelligent design and discomfort with evolution (2010)

Intelligent design theory (IDT) has received support from the general public, educators, elected officials, and a minority of scientists, who advocate that it be taught alongside evolutionary theory (ET) in high school science classes. Correspondingly, ET has faced considerable opposition from these groups. Given the tremendous amount of scientific evidence supporting ET and the fact that IDT is inherently unscientific (AAAS, 2006) and lacks any empirical support, it is important to understand the underlying psychological motives that likely influence these views. We tested whether the popularity of IDT and antagonism toward ET might be partially accounted for by IDT’s more existentially satisfying explanation of life’s origins. In four studies, we found that reminders of death in a diverse range of participants increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET. These effects were reversed among participants who learned that naturalism, which underlies ET but not IDT, can be a source of transcendent meaning (Study 4), and among natural-science-student participants, for whom ET is an existentially meaningful worldview (Study 5). These reversals demonstrate that individuals’ tendency to respond to mortality salience by shifting their scientific beliefs is likely due to a search for transcendent meaning in response to existential threat. Finally, the failure to find effects of mortality salience on acceptance of IDT or ET among a sample of Christian club members (Study 6), who likely already hold an existentially satisfying worldview, is discussed. This research highlights the previously unrecognized factor that is causally related to the formation of scientific beliefs, and indicates when and for whom this factor is most likely to operate.

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