Marc Berman receives award: 2018 APS Janet Taylor Spence Awards for Transformative Early Career Contributions


Six psychological scientists have been recognized with the 2018 APS Janet Taylor Spence Awards for Transformative Early Career Contributions for their cutting-edge research on fields varying from the development of decision-making skills to mathematical models of happiness and how we rationalize disturbing realities. The award, named for APS’s first elected president, honors the most creative and promising researchers who embody the future of psychological science.

This year’s recipients shared their experiences and ongoing research with the Observer. The awards will be presented at the 2018 APS Annual Convention, May 24–27, in San Francisco, California.

Awardees include:

Elliot Berkman

Marc Berman

Catherine Hartley

Kristin Laurin

Robb Rutledge

Amrisha Vaish

Berman excerpt:

Marc Berman

The University of Chicago


Observer: Please briefly describe your research interests.

Berman: I focus on understanding the interaction between individual psychological processing and environmental factors that give rise to human behavior. My research has two main lines. In one line of research I study how external environments, such as the physical environment and the social environment, affect human behavior. For example, I’m currently studying how interacting with different environments, such as natural ones, can improve cognitive functioning, as well as how sustained exposure to more natural spaces can positively impact physical and mental health.

In my second line of research, the focus is on assessing individual cognitive, affective, and neural processing, which I term the “internal environment.” For example, we’ve found that individuals who have better self-control have brain networks that act more efficiently when performing challenging cognitive tasks. We are also finding that when the brain is in more fractal states (as measured with nonlinear dynamics measures) it is exerting less effort. We now want to examine whether interacting with nature pushes the brain into these more restful states. In both lines of research I employ multivariate statistics, computational modeling, neuroimaging, and behavioral experimentation.

Observer: What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

Berman: I became interested in the field of psychological science and the study of the human mind because of my grandparents’ lives and experiences. My grandparents on my father’s side are Holocaust survivors, and I grapple with how humans can do so much harm to other humans. I believe that there is no field of inquiry more important than the study of human behavior and the human mind. It is also amazing to me how my grandparents, who survived such horrific experiences, continued to be loving and open-minded people. You would never know what they went through upon meeting them. It speaks to how resilient they were and, again, how incredibly complex and unique the human mind is. My maternal grandmother also has been an inspiration to me through her quiet morality, strength, and resilience in raising four children on her own after the much-too-early passing of my maternal grandfather. My grandparents and their experiences have inspired me to study the mind and it is my hope that, with a better understanding and quantification of the interactions between individual psychological processing and the environment, we will make huge strides in improving society and overall human well-being.

Observer: Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

Berman: Recently we have begun to examine how perceiving low-level features of the environment (such as curved lines of a tree branch or disorderly edges of graffiti) can have downstream consequences on broader psychological behaviors, such as affecting self-control, but also on thoughts about spirituality. The work highlights the complexity of perception and the deep interplay among perception, action, and cognition; it also could have implications for how one might design the physical environment to elicit specific behaviors. The line of inquiry came about from lengthy conversations with my graduate students Omid Kardan, Hiroki (Hiro) Kotabe, and Kathryn (Kate) Schertz, who creatively applied novel theories and methods to tackle these questions. We have a very open environment in our lab, where it is easy to discuss half-baked ideas, and I think this openness helped develop much of this research.

Observer: What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

Berman: I’ve had so many mentors/scientific influences who have helped me along the way. I’ll start in chronological order. Yili Liu at the University of Michigan sought me out, identified my scientific passions, helped me get on a research path, and was my co-advisor throughout graduate school. Doug Noll, Luis Hernandez-Garcia, and Scott Peltier first introduced me to fMRI, which I find to be incredible technology as it allows one to see thought in action in the brain. As Doug once told me, it’s about as close to science fiction as you can get. Doug helped to get me in touch with John Jonides, who would become my co-advisor in graduate school. John taught me the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be a psychological scientist, and his enthusiasm for science still inspires me to this day. I owe John so much and still continue to bother him to this day. It shows that mentorship has no timeline — sorry, John.

Steve Kaplan got me interested in simple solutions to complex problems and, in particular, how interacting with nature could be beneficial to human psychological functioning. Steve taught me to see outside the box and to be true to myself—to see that I did not need to fit a specific mold. Ethan Kross helped to get me involved in many exciting and unique projects, and I’ll always value all of our conversations both about science and other subjects. Rick Lewis, Bernadine Cimprich, Patti Reuter-Lorenz, Yuichi Shoda, Patty Deldin, and Rich Gonzalez all have had significant impacts on my career. I could not have asked for a better postdoc advisor than Randy McIntosh. Randy gave me the freedom to work on problems that interested me, and I learned so many new computational tools from working in his lab. I also learned a great deal from Stephen Strother and Tomas Paus. Bratislav Misic and Nathan Churchill continue to be great collaborators. The University of Chicago, both inside the Psychology Department and outside of it, has been an extremely rich intellectual environment and also has been incredibly supportive. The Psychology Department as a whole has just been incredible to me, and I owe them so much. Howard Nusbaum, Sian Beilock, Susan Levine, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Amanda Woodward all have provided me with so much mentorship and guidance since I arrived—including some off-hour phone calls. You all would do well to change your cell phone numbers.

Observer: What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

Berman: Moving forward, I want to develop better and more predictive models for how individual factors interact with the environment (both physical and social) that gives rise to behavior. To improve our models and our understanding, I’d like to incorporate genetic and epigenetic information. Genetic information can inform us about how receptive certain individuals may be to different environments; epigenetic mechanisms alter how current and future environments are processed based on prior experience. These epigenetic modifications are stable and affect patterns of gene expression, which then alters cell functioning, brain network activity, and behavior. In addition, I’d like to utilize Bayesian modeling approaches as an overall framework to model these interactions and to make unique predictions. The goal is to make more quantitative assessments about how the environment affects us that could then be used to help inform public policy decisions. This work will involve many collaborations, including those with Sarah London, Dan Yurovsky, and Luis Bettencourt.

Observer: What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Berman: It is a great honor to win this award, and it means a lot to me. Academia and science is a tough business, filled with trials, tribulations, and of course lots of rejection. It is important to savor these positive moments. To be considered amongst these great psychological scientists is very humbling. I couldn’t have won this award without the help of my mentors and all of my terrific students and collaborators, and I share it with all of them. I also owe a lot to my supportive parents, my wife Katie, my three daughters, and all of my family and friends. I love what I do and I feel very fortunate to be a psychological scientist.

Read the announcement: Association for Psychological Science. (2018, May) 2018 APS Janet Taylor Spence Awards for Transformative Early Career Contributions. Retrieved from

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