Social & Personality Psychology PhD candidate Lauren Gazzard Kerr talks to In The Spotlight about her non-linear path to grad school and her love for the nuances within her work.
Research Area: Social & Personality Psychology
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Lauren Human
Tell us a bit about yourself: I moved to Montreal from New Zealand in my early teens. From a really young age, I always enjoyed talking about and trying to understand why people did the things they did and thought the way they thought. I’ve always been an avid writer and lover of science, and so psychology was a natural, albeit non-linear, route for me.
I started my undergrad right out of CEGEP at the University of Western Ontario, but over the course of my first year, I realized I just wasn’t ready for university and ended up dropping out. I had a hard time adjusting to the large class sizes, I felt paralyzed with fear over making the wrong choice in major, and this was all compounded by having a limited social sphere due to the financial decision to live off campus. I’m not entirely sure why, but even after dropping out I decided to stay in London for a few more years – maybe I thought I would eventually return to Western, or I misguidedly didn’t want to return a failure, or I still wanted the experience of living somewhere new. So when I finally returned to Montreal a few years later, I worked for a urogynecologist for five years and was lucky enough to be involved in some of his research projects. Ultimately, he was the one who really encouraged me to go back to school to pursue research, so when I was 25, I restarted my undergrad at Concordia University.
Due to my standing at Western, I could only register as an independent student for the first year and had to demonstrate a specific grade point in order to be accepted into the psychology program. It wasn’t an easy start since I was a full-time student while also working full-time at the hospital, but those four years at Concordia taught me a lot about myself: what motivated me and what parts of my life I was and wasn’t willing to sacrifice for a career path. During my time there, I fell in love with perception research and had a fantastic experience with Dr. Aaron Johnson and Dr. Lucy Farisello examining how men and women look at and focus on different parts of high- and low-arousal sexual images. This experience coupled with the work I was doing at the McGill Sex & Couple’s Therapy department, made me realize how much I wanted to research the role our perceptions play in relationship development. As luck would have it, the perfect supervisor for that program of research had just been hired at McGill, so choosing this department for my graduate career was a no brainer.
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: I look at the social and psychological consequences of accurate first impressions of personality. So, for example, when I met my husband for the first time, did I have a good gauge of who he was and did this contribute to my being romantically interested in him regardless of how positively I viewed him? I look at nuances to this question too, like whether the context of the impression (e.g., friends vs. romantic partners) and the information being perceived (e.g., a more insecure person vs. a secure person) matters.
What excites you most about your research? Honestly, the nuances. When we find a new result, I get excited thinking about conditions where this finding may or may not exist. For example, my supervisor found that having a good read of someone’s personality is thought to be beneficial to initiating friendships and it has been shown to benefit established romantic relationships, but is this true for all contexts and all types of personality? That is, in a more evaluative setting like a job interview or a first date, will having a good read of someone’s personality still promote liking or could this high-stakes decision lead people to be pickier and more evaluative about aspects of their personality? Or are there some situations where a bit of mystery is better, and we should make our peace with not always being liked even when people do actually “get” us? These types of questions can sometimes feel like a bit of a black hole to some, but I like thinking about and teasing apart these grey areas.
Is there any recent or upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? My first first-authored manuscript was recently accepted at Psychological Science. This project was meaningful to me for a number of reasons. It was the project my supervisor and I discussed when we first met, and it contributed to us wanting to work together, so to have it recognized by such a high impact journal was incredibly validating and rewarding. I also met my husband through this research (which I’ll describe later!), my supervisor gave birth to her first child right as we submitted to Psychological Science, and it was accepted while I was due with my first!
For this work, we were interested in whether accurately perceiving a date’s unique personality traits predicts romantic interest, irrespective of the positivity of the impression. To do so, we held a series of speed-dating events at the McGill bar, Gerts. Participants first completed a questionnaire where they rated their own personality on items like “is sociable” and “handles stress”, and then they met with all opposite-sex participants for a 3-minute interaction where they could chat about whatever they wanted, just like a regular speed-dating event. After each interaction, the participants then rated their date’s personality on the same items they had completed about themselves, while also indicating how romantically interested they were and whether they wanted to be matched. We also collaborated with Dr. Mitja Back at the University of Münster in Germany, who had conducted a similar speed-dating study, so we were able to look at our question with two independent samples from two different countries.
We found that the more positively participants viewed a date’s personality, the more romantically interested they were – makes sense. However, the more accurately they saw their date’s personality, the less they were romantically interested. So, there are two ways that we can think about this accuracy finding. First, it is possible that participants really zeroed in on their date to try and understand their personality in order to effectively rule out incompatible matches, and this could have led them to be pickier than they typically would be. This idea could be especially important to the current dating culture, as dating apps mean that a whole slew of potentially “better” dating prospects are just a swipe away. Alternatively, when participants experienced greater romantic interest, they may have turned their attention inward and focused on how they themselves were coming across to their date, meaning that there wasn’t “enough” attention left over to effectively perceive their date’s personality. We are hoping to look at this over time with relationships formed after these events as this might give us some insight into what exactly is going on.
Do you have any experiences that have particularly shaped you or your research? Before I started graduate school, I had just ended a long-term relationship and was feeling very clinical about love and wondering whether I could have saved myself some heartache had I just had a better understanding of his personality and not been so blinded during the initial stages of the relationship. So, when I began my graduate research, I acted as the MC at the speed-dating events for the study I previously described. About six months in, I was hosting an event and a certain male research participant arrived. I would learn later that he had circled the outside of the bar a few times convincing himself to go in. He sat at the back of the bar and while he spent the next two hours making his way from table to table, we couldn’t keep our eyes off of each other. I texted a friend during the break to say that I was in love, and honestly it is as close to love at first sight as I can imagine. A week or so after the event, he emailed my lab asking for my contact information; apparently, he had questions about the study. I emailed back only to learn that out of all of the interactions he had had that night, ours was the shortest but by far the most memorable and would I consider dating him instead. I had a funny conversation with my supervisor about it and thankfully he ended up dropping out of the study, and that was it. We’ve been married for almost a year now and we just had our first child a few weeks ago.
Beyond how this experience shaped me personally, it also shaped my research as well. When we found that accuracy was significantly associated with less romantic interest, it didn’t sit well with me and the experience I had with my husband. I truly felt like I had a good grasp of who he was during that speed-dating event, and it certainly didn’t impede my interest in him. My supervisor and I would talk about this, and we had the hypothesis that a more desirable personality (specifically higher extraversion in this case, as it has been associated with increased romantic attraction in the past) would moderate the association between accuracy and romantic interest. Sure enough, we ended up finding that when a date’s personality was more extraverted, the negative association between accuracy and romantic interest was either dampened or became positive. This finding was replicated with the sample from the University of Münster and became an important part of our manuscript at Psychological Science. It also validated my desire to seek out the many, many nuances that likely occur in our social interactions and perceptions of others.
Do you have an interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share? I was a competitive Latin American and ballroom dancer until I moved to Canada. My dance partner and I were the third best in the South Island of New Zealand.
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? I really love learning about different experiences and the ways in which people perceive others and their world. This leads to a lot of reading, both fiction and non-fiction, tv and movie watching, and engaging with various educational social media pages and podcasts. I’m a huge fan of the activist and sexuality educator and writer, Ericka Hart. She is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia, and she offers amazing webinars on gender and racial and social justice.
I enjoy taking these perspectives and what I learn and bringing them to both academic discussions in the department and day-to-day conversations with friends and family. I also really enjoy working with my hands and making and/or refurbishing furniture. During the COVID-19 isolation, we tore down a large, old shed in the backyard and repurposed the wood as an outdoor sectional, coffee table, dining table, and benches.
How can people contact you? I can be reached over email at lauren.gazzard [at] mail.mcgill.ca.