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Applying Psychological Science to World Issues

Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

Michele Gelfand Wins International Psychology Award

SIOP Fellow Michele Gelfand is widely known for her work on the evolution and consequences of cultural differences, negotiation and conflict, revenge and forgiveness, and diversity.

A professor and Distinguished University Scholar Teacher at University of Maryland, College Park, she recently received the 2017 US Outstanding International Psychologist Award given by Division 52 (International Psychology) of the American Psychological Association.

The Division presents two Outstanding International Psychologist Awards each year, one given to a psychologist from the United States and the second for a psychologist outside the United States. Both awards give recognition to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to international psychology through significant research, teaching, advocacy and/or contributions to international organizations.

While discussing the International Psychology Division award, Gelfand quipped that her career is “a case of life being what happens while you make other plans.”

Interested in the Geneva Peace Conference negotiations between James Baker and Tariq Aziz in the early 1990s, Gelfand began to wonder how much cross-cultural training they had. She set out to become a cross-cultural trainer for the Defense Department but found she enjoys working in academics too much to do anything else.

She loves her work, and noted in a publication for the APA International Division that, “Cross-cultural research has been a lifelong journey that brings with it many joys, the most notable of which are wonderful collaborations with colleagues and students.”

Gelfand did her post-graduate work under the mentorship of SIOP Fellow Harry Triandis, one of the founders of cross-cultural psychology, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“I really went to the University of Triandis,” she said affectionately about her mentor, who urged her to “think big.”

Gelfand also credits Triandis for the advice she likes to share with her own students: “Be passionate about what you do. Don’t be afraid to be controversial. And don’t take yourself too seriously.”

The curriculum at Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was very broad, including social psychology, I-O psychology, decision making, and culture. Gelfand called it “sort of a playground to integrate cross-cultural research into many different domains including those subfields of psychology.”

An interdisciplinary approach to investigating big-picture issues has shaped her career’s work, and led to a $6.25 million grant from the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) sponsored by the Department of Defense in support of multidisciplinary research with potential both for defense and commercial uses.

Gelfand’s MURI project brought together US and middle eastern researchers from disciplines including psychology, computer science, economics, sociology, and political science. The researchers sought to provide evidence-based tools and recommendations for improving outcomes of negotiation and collaborations in intercultural contexts. Tips for negotiators and an honor dictionary are two of the practical applications of the MURI project highlighted on Gelfand’s website.

Her effort to translate research to current issues is ongoing, and includes an op-ed for The Conversation coauthored with her research assistant Virginia Choi about the United Airlines debacle, in which a customer was dragged from an overbooked flight.

The comments are based on her pioneering work developing a culturally informed theory of psychological tightness-looseness (TL). That theory is outlined in a May 2011 Science paper about a 33-nation study on Tightness-Looseness Gelfand and her colleagues conducted. The researchers correlate ecological and historical conditions with societal institutions, micro-level psychological affordances, and other factors, to the cultural state of tightness or looseness. Tight cultures are those that have many strong norms and low tolerance for behavioral deviance, while loose cultures are characterized by weak social norms and greater tolerance.  The study sought to expand cross cultural understanding in a world characterized by increasing global interdependence.  Since then, Gelfand has applied the theory of Tightness-looseness to states, organizations, social class and even the brain.

Gelfand finds SIOP’s scientist-practitioner focus inspirational.

“I think SIOP does a wonderful job—a very unique job--of bringing scientists and practitioners together,” she said. “It inspires people like me to think through how to take our science and use it in the world.”

She also stresses the value of an interdisciplinary approach, saying, “When you take these different methods and traditions and bring them together, you get a lot of insight into the phenomenon you’re trying to explore. More than you would get with one or two methods alone.”  

She said finding people from different disciplines who are interested in similar questions but have very different perspectives on them is “actually, just a lot of fun.”

Gelfand has taken to heart her mentor Harry Triandis’s advice about being passionate and thinking big. A new undertaking clearly illustrates her commitment. In 2015, she helped organize an interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Maryland that lead her to co-found the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution, dedicated to the creation of a unified science of cultural change informed by evolutionary theory, with the ultimate goal of accomplishing positive change in real-world settings.

The Outstanding International Psychologist Award is the latest in a string of prestigious awards Gelfand has received, including The Diener Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2016, SIOP’s William A. Owens Scholarly Achievement Award in 2014, the Anneliese Maier Research Award from the  Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2011, the SIOP Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award in 2002, and the Cumming’s award from Academy of Management in 2002.

Leading scholarly publications including Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the Academy of Management Journal, and the Journal of Applied Psychology have published her work. NPR and Fox News have interviewed her about her research, and she has published several articles on current affairs topics in the popular press.

Contact Michele Gelfand at mgelfand@umd.eduwww.gelfand.umd.edu.

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