Interview with Yarrow Dunham

Dr. Yarrow Dunham is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science and the Director of the Social Cognitive Development Lab. He got his PhD in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard in 2007.

1. How did you become interested in psychology? Did you go straight to graduate school after undergrad or did you do something in between?

I’ve always been puzzled by the extent to which we automatically internalize cultural norms. Even fairly young children understand what it means to be popular or unpopular, high or low in social status. And we don’t just learn which groups are higher in status, we frequently end up looking up to or wanting to emulate those groups. We actively embrace these norms. Why do we do this so readily? When I finally discovered experimental psychology, I saw it as a really interesting set of tools for studying these phenomena.

As for my academic journey, I’ve had a pretty non-traditional route. When I finished undergrad, I spent about six years traveling and teaching. It was during those years that I discovered psychology as an empirical science and decided to go back to graduate school.

2. What are you currently most excited about, research wise? Why do you think this research question is important?

Over the last few years I’ve been thinking more about social status and how children infer social status from observing interactions between individuals and groups. How do children form a map of their local status hierarchy? And once they have that figured out, what inferences do they make about people in high versus low status positions? This is an area I’ll be focusing on going forward.

The conditions under which humans will justify versus resist the status quo are very important and have relevance for social justice. If we think a system is unjust we should resist it, but it seems that there are psychological mechanisms in place that make resisting the status quo difficult or that even lead us to accept it. Understanding how and why this happens will hopefully reveal ways to more effectively create social change.

3. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten that has helped you in your career?

Persistence is key. One of the most striking features about a career in academia is that even the most successful people experience a great deal of rejection—papers get rejected from journals, grant applications get rejected, and conference talks get rejected. You have to learn how to persist despite that constant rejection and figure out your own individual strategies for dealing it, and ideally for learning from it, figuring out how to use the feedback that sometimes accompanies rejection to polish your ideas.

4. What was the transition from graduate student to professor like?

It was very intense! Grad students think of themselves as busy and as working hard (and they definitely are) but when you become a faculty member you have those same tasks and then you acquire basically another full-time job composed of teaching and service and mentoring. You have to get a lot better at managing your time and focusing your most creative energy on the most important things. It’s very difficult to prepare for; you just have to get thrown into the deep end and figure it out.

5. What are some of the pros and cons of working in academia?

One of the things I love most about academia is that I have a huge amount of flexibility in deciding what I work on, who I work with, and what I teach. It’s something that’s very rare in other professions. We can follow our own interests and have a lot of control over the ways we spend our time. You also get to decide when you work, which is something I’m appreciating more and more as a new parent. I have the ability to get away when I need to.

But because you’re not bounded by a 9 to 5 schedule and because there’s always work to be done, it can be easy to feel like you should always be working. It can be very hard to leave the work behind. The challenge is being able to turn off that part of your mind at the end of the day.