Melissa Ferguson

Wisdom RFP Grant Recipient
Assistant Professor, Psychology

Cornell University

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My research addresses the ways in which people process information about their social environment in a relatively automatic fashion, and the influence of that automatic processing on their behavior. These questions reflect the movement of social psychological theory and research over the last 30 years from the widespread assumption that people generate judgments, attitudes, and actions deliberately and intentionally to the possibility that such phenomena in fact routinely occur without people’s full awareness, control, or effort.

My primary research focus is on automatic evaluation. Although researchers have traditionally assumed that people evaluate the stimuli in their environment in an intentional and effortful manner, more recent work in the field demonstrates that people can evaluate the valence (goodness or badness) of a stimulus in as little as 10 milliseconds, even while they are consciously unaware of the stimulus itself. My research in this area examines the degree to which these kinds of evaluations are flexible (i.e., contextually dependent) and consequential (i.e., influential on subtle and overt behavior). One recent topic in the lab concerns the role of automatic evaluations during conscious and nonconscious goal pursuit.

I am also currently conducting two secondary lines of research. The first concerns the effects of automatically activated, complex knowledge structures on perception and behavior. In particular, my colleagues and I have been examining the extent to which ideological knowledge (e.g., American nationalism) might be activated, automatically, by a related cue (e.g., the American flag) and implicitly influence a host of attitudes, judgments, and behavior. The other secondary line of work addresses the automatic activation and operation of goals, and how it compares with deliberate goal activation and operation. This work tests boundary effects of automatic goal pursuit, as well as potential differences between deliberate versus automatic knowledge activation and processing more generally.

Defining Wisdom Project Description

There are important similarities between wisdom and insight. Arguably, both wisdom and insight depend on intuitive problem solving. This research tests for the non-conscious processes that lead to solving an intuitive problem. Specifically, this project tests how the cognitive accessibility and affective value of a particular solution to a problem non-consciously increase in the mind as the person is trying to generate that solution. Findings indicate that there may be a non-conscious “a-ha” response to solutions of problems that the mind is occupied with.

Recent Publications
Taking a closer look: On the operation of nonconscious impression formation
McCulloch, K.C., Ferguson, M.J., Kawada, C., & Bargh, J.A. 2008. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (3): 614-23. In this article, we analyzed the information processing that underlies nonconscious impression formation. In the first experiment (Experiment 1), the nonconscious activation of the impression formation goal led to a faster analysis of the trait implications...
On the automatic evaluation of end-states
Ferguson, M. J. (2007). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1632-47. The author's research examined automatically activated attitudes toward desired end-states. Across 4 studies, participants' automatic attitudes toward goals (i.e., thinness, egalitarianism) significantly predicted their goal pursuit, including...
Beyond Behaviorism: On the Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes
Bargh, J. A. & Ferguson, M. J. (2000). Psychological Bulletin, 126, 925-45. The first 100 years of experimental psychology were dominated by 2 major schools of thought: behaviorism and cognitive science. Here the authors consider the common philosophical commitment to determinism by both schools, and how the radical behaviorists'...
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Cornell University

Current Position

Assistant Professor, Psychology

Highest Degree

Ph.D. New York University 2002

Research Interests

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