Jiaying Zhao

Associate Professor

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs


Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Jiaying is a dedicated, caring, and open-minded supervisor who sets a high standard for my PhD and guides me to think critically about human psychology, sustainability, and research design. She is generous with her time to discuss and brainstorm ideas with students and actively supports interdisciplinary collaboration. Her enthusiasm about and commitment with her students' research (not to mention her novel and interesting work) make her an exceptional supervisor and continue to inspire me in my PhD journey. I am glad to have such a great supervisor.

Rumi Naito (2019)


I'm privileged to have two #GreatSupervisors at #UBC who teach me a lot about many things. I especially learn from their tenacity and persistence on everything they do. It’s contagious. Thanks @KaiChanUBC and @jiayingzhao for sharing your time and knowledge with me!


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.

The impact of cash transfers across the economic spectrum (2022)

Cash transfers are an effective tool to alleviate poverty in lower income countries. By enabling people to flexibly meet their needs, cash transfers improve health, psychological well-being, education, and employment outcomes. Despite these documented benefits for people living in poverty, there is a dearth of research across diverse socioeconomic circumstances. In this dissertation, I examine how cash transfers influence people’s well-being across the global economic spectrum (i.e., people who are homeless, and people with low, middle, and high incomes). In Study 1, I use a cluster-randomized controlled trial to test the impact of an unconditional cash transfer of CAD$7,500 to each of 50 individuals experiencing homelessness, with another 65 as controls in Vancouver, BC. Over one year, cash recipients spent fewer days homeless, increased savings and spending with no increase in temptation goods spending, and generated societal net savings of $777 per recipient via reduced time in shelters. In Study 2, I document a potential barrier to implementing cash transfer policies for people experiencing homelessness: there is public mistrust toward the ability of homeless individuals to manage money. In Study 3, I test interventions to overcome this mistrust and increase public support for such a policy using messaging that highlights the benefits of cash transfers. These studies provide the first empirical evidence demonstrating the potential for cash transfers as a tool to address homelessness; but, do the benefits of cash transfers extend beyond those living in poverty? In Studies 4-5, I analyzed data from another randomized controlled trial to examine the impact of cash transfers with a diverse sample spanning the global economic spectrum. Two-hundred people from seven countries received cash gifts of $10,000 each, with another 100 as controls. In Study 4a, I show that cash recipients at most income levels experienced gains in well-being, but the gains were largest for lower-income recipients. In Study 4b, I find that cash recipients spent significant portions of the money generously on others, illustrating how benefits can spread through social networks. Overall, this research demonstrates that cash transfers are a flexible tool that can provide benefits across the economic spectrum.

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A weighted summation framework for conjunctive predictions (2021)

The mind readily learns predictive relationships in the environment where a cue predicts a specific outcome. This research examines a novel question: How does the mind spontaneously generate predictions when multiple cues associated with different outcomes are jointly presented. I propose a weighted summation framework to model human predictions: when encountering joint cues, the mind sums up the associated outcomes based on their respective probabilities. The conjunction that represents the overlap of the two outcomes would have the highest summed probability, and would be prioritized and consistently predicted. To examine the research question, Experiments 1-3 employed a spatial search paradigm. Participants were first exposed to cue-location associations where specific color (Experiments1-2) or texture cues (Experiment 3) predicted target appearance in specific locations. Then, two cues jointly appeared either side-by-side (Experiments 1-2) or into a new object (Experiment 3), and the target appeared in all locations with equal frequency. Following the two cues, there would be locations consistent with both of them, making these locations the conjunctive locations. The results showed that search time was faster when the target appeared in the conjunctive location. In Experiments 4-6, an attention tracking paradigm was used to extend the findings in Experiment 1. The results showed that when two cues jointly appeared, participants tended to first check the conjunctive location for the target, suggesting they made conjunctive predictions. Experiments 7-9 aimed to further extend the previous findings. Specifically, Experiment 7 replicated previous results with a conceptual paradigm, where each cue was associated with a conceptual category of objects (e.g., red predicts large objects). Experiments 8-9 examined weighted subtraction, where participants were exposed to associations between a pair of joint cues and specific spatial locations, and made predictions when they encounter a single cue from the pair. Experiments 10-11 examined the role of exposure in forming conjunctive predictions, where exposure was replaced with only explicit instructions (Experiment 10), or the strength of cue-outcome associations was reduced during exposure (Experiment 11). Overall, the results of the current research suggested that people tended to make conjunctive predictions when encountering joint cues, consistent with the weighted summation framework.

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Losing woodcreepers, iconizing manakins, and despising grackles : understanding human-bird relationships in agro-ecological landscapes (2019)

No abstract available.

Sustainability by design: motivating pro-environmental action and improving waste diversion (2018)

No abstract available.

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.

Boosting understanding of lifestyle carbon emissions: evaluating the effectiveness of carbon calculators and carbon labels to promote climate action (2022)

No abstract available.

On the acceptance of intergenerational legacies: a comparison of Canada and Japan (2020)

No abstract available.

The roles of affect and sustainability education in increasing pro-environmental behaviour in a botanical garden (2020)

No abstract available.

Perceived food quality and production quality in consumer evaluation of agrifood products (2019)

No abstract available.

Statistical learning creates novel object associations via transitive relations (2018)

A remarkable ability of the cognitive system is to make novel inferences based on prior experiences. What mechanism supports such inference? We propose that statistical learning is a process where transitive inferences of new associations are made between objects that have never been directly associated. After viewing a continuous sequence containing two base pairs (e.g., A-B, B-C), participants automatically inferred a transitive pair (e.g., A-C) where the two objects had never co-occurred before (Experiment 1). This transitive inference occurred in the absence of explicit awareness of the base pairs. However, participants failed to infer the transitive pair from three base pairs (Experiment 2), showing the limits of the transitive inference (Experiment 3). We further demonstrated that this transitive inference can operate across the categorical hierarchy (Experiments 4-7). The findings revealed a novel consequence of statistical learning where new transitive associations between objects are implicitly inferred.

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Attentional trade-offs under resource scarcity (2017)

Resource scarcity poses challenging demands on the cognitive system. Budgeting with limited resources induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, but it also comes with a cost. Specifically, scarcity causes a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment, or remember to execute actions in the future, that help alleviate the condition of scarcity. This neglect may arise as a result of attentional narrowing. Attentional trade-offs under scarcity can further determine memory encoding. In seven experiments, we demonstrated that participants under scarcity prioritized price information but neglected a useful discount when ordering food from a menu (Experiment 1); they showed better recall for information relevant to the focal task at a subsequent surprise memory test (Experiments 2 and 3); they performed more efficiently on the focal task but neglect a useful cue in the environment that could save them resources (Experiments 4-6); and they failed to remember the previous instructions to execute future actions that could save them resources (Experiment 7). These results collectively demonstrate that scarcity fundamentally shapes the way people process information in the environment, by directing attention to the most urgent task, while inducing a neglect of other information that can be beneficial. The attentional neglect and memory failures may lead to suboptimal behaviors that further aggravate the condition of scarcity. The results provide new insights on the behaviors of the poor, and also important implications for public policy and the design of welfare services and programs for low-income individuals.

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Mechanisms of randomness cognition (2017)

The environment is inherently noisy, with regularities and randomness. Therefore, the challenge for the cognitive system is to detect signals from noise. This extraction of regularities forms the basis of many learning processes, such as conditioning and language acquisition. However, people often have erroneous beliefs about randomness. One pervasive bias in people’s conception of randomness is that they expect random sequences to exhibit greater alternations than typically produced by random devices (i.e., the over-alternation bias). To explain the causes of this bias, in the thesis, I examined the cognitive and neural mechanisms of randomness perception. In six experiments, I found that the over-alternation bias was present regardless of the feature dimensions, sensory modalities, and probing methods (Experiment 1); alternations in a binary sequence were harder to encode and are under-represented compared with repetitions (Experiments 2-5); and hippocampal neurogenesis was a critical neural mechanism for the detection of alternating patterns but not for repeating patterns (Experiment 6). These findings provide new insights on the mechanisms of randomness cognition; specifically, we revealed different mechanisms involved in representing alternating patterns versus repeating patterns.

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Ensemble perception of multiple spatially intermixed sets (2016)

The visual system is remarkably efficient at extracting summary statistics from the environment. Yet at any given time, the environment consists of many groups of objects distributed over space. Thus, the challenge for the visual system is to summarize over multiple sets distributed across space. My thesis work investigates the capacity constraints and computational efficiency of ensemble perception, in the context of perceiving multiple spatially intermixed groups of objects. First, in three experiments, participants viewed an array of 1 to 8 intermixed sets of circles. Each set contained four circles in the same colors but with different sizes. Participants estimated the mean size of a probed set. Which set would be probed was either known before onset of the array (pre-cue), or after that (post-cue). Fitting a uniform-normal mixture model to the error distribution, I found participants could reliably estimate mean sizes for maximally four sets (Experiment 1). Importantly, their performance was unlikely to be driven by a subsampling strategy (Experiment 2). Allowing longer exposure to the stimulus array did not increase the capacity, suggesting ensemble perception was limited by an internal resource constraint, rather than an information encoding rate (Experiment 3). Second, in two experiments, I showed that the visual system could hold up to four ensemble representations, or up to four individual items (Experiment 4), and an ensemble representation had an information uncertainty (entropy) level similar to that of an individual representation (Experiment 5). Taken together, ensemble perception provides a compact and efficient way of information processing.

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Exploring attitudes and preferences toward species at risk in British Columbia (2015)

There are 199 species at risk in British Columbia (B.C.). To elicit public support to conserve biodiversity, it is important to understand people’s attitudes and preferences toward species at risk. Here we examine how people perceive endangered species in B.C., how message framing shapes the attitudes toward the species, and whether implicit or explicit preferences determine willingness to pay for conservation. In Study 1 reported in Chapter 2, we presented three messages about sea otters to 623 residents in B.C., and measured the change in their attitudes toward sea otters using Kellert’s typology of basic attitudes toward wildlife. The messages were framed as either positive (as a keystone species), negative (resource conflict with First Nations’ fishermen in the West Coast of Vancouver Island), or neutral (biological facts). We found that the negative message promoted acceptance for managing sea otters and their habitats for use values (utilitarian-consumption, utilitarian-habitat), and for exerting control over sea otters (dominionistic). This shift in attitudes occurred even though the negative message was perceived as less convincing and believable than the positive or neutral messages. The positive message, on the other hand, decreased utilitarian-consumption attitudes. In Study 2 reported in Chapter 3, we evaluated people’s implicit and explicit preferences for four species at risk in B.C. (sea otter, American badger, caribou, and yellow-breasted chat). We found that explicit rather than implicit preference predicts willingness to pay for conservation of each species, and findings suggest that people apply the affect heuristic when judging species—species that are less liked may be perceived as riskier, and vice versa—. This finding holds for both residents in B.C. (n=55) and outside of B.C. (n=463). The results from the two studies highlight the importance of attitudes, messaging, and preference when designing conservation campaigns and efforts.

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