Social-Cognitive Dynamics Enable Flexible Adaptation to Environments: Evidence from Social Decision-Making, Self-Regulation, and Adult-Attachment Research

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Humans adapt and optimize behavior in their interaction with the environment and their functioning is socially interdependent and richly contextualized. In four papers, spanning different areas of study (social decision-making, self-regulation, adult-attachment), I examined how social-cognitive dynamics enable flexible adaptation to the environment. In Paper 1, across two studies, I show that social category cues (i.e., partner-attractiveness) can color interpersonal judgments about unknown others. But, despite the persisting effect of such cues, participants showed evidence of learning partner-utility information and overtime made choices that maximized profits. In Paper 2, I examined intraindividual variability in delaying of gratification (DG), across four studies. Multilevel analyses revealed that ~25% of the variability (Studies 1-3) in perceived success at DG was attributable to inter-individual variability. But, much of the variability (~75%, Studies 1-3) was attributable to intra-individual variability. I showed that individuals’ personal construals, like active pursuit of and value of delayed rewards (e.g., being healthy) and whether DG is perceived as easy/difficult, explained intra-individual variability in success at DG. Therefore, beyond the nominal/objective situation, an individual’s subjective construals of the situation allow for examining when and why individuals delay or not. In Paper 3, across two studies, I show that merely sharing an experience/context can affect impression formation. In Study 1, when the participant was socially excluded along with another player (i.e., co-excluded), we found that the co-excluded was evaluated more positively compared to the excluders. In Study 2, I show that the positivity towards the co-excluded is not merely a contrast effect of increased negativity towards the excluders or a reconnection effect following exclusion. Therefore, not just perceiver or target related characteristics drive impressions but the encountered context also can affect them. Lastly, in Paper 4 the malleability of attachment security/insecurity in response to partner-responsiveness was examined. In two studies, implicitly pairing smiling (i.e., accepting; Study 1 and 2) versus disgust (i.e., rejecting; Study 2) faces with distressing (vs. neutral) stimuli primed the processing speed for words signaling general secure attachment (Study 1) or partner evaluative words that signal security (vs. insecurity; Study 2). Specifically, accepting faces, during distress led to strong association with secure attachment and partner evaluative words but rejecting faces during distress led to association with insecure partner evaluative words. Thus, as evidenced by the aforementioned studies, social-cognitive dynamics do enable flexible adaptation to interactions and changes in one’s environment.

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Adult attachment; Delay of gratification; Implicit bias; Self-regulation; Social cues; Social decision-making; Social psychology; Personality psychology
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Zayas, Vivian
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Ferguson, Melissa J.
Hazan, Cynthia
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Ph. D., Psychology
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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dissertation or thesis
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