ASU faculty named Association for Psychological Science Fellow for outstanding research

Associate Professor Michael Varnum is recognized for his research contributions to psychology

June 7, 2022

Arizona State University Associate Professor Michael Varnum was recently announced as a 2021 Association for Psychological Science Fellow.

Varnum is an evolutionary social psychologist and primary investigator for the Culture and Ecology Lab, where he conducts research on cultural variation and the causes of cultural change.  Michael Varnum Associate Professor Michael Varnum was recently announced as a 2021 Association for Psychological Science Fellow. Varnum was previously named a Rising Star by the association in 2016 as an early career recognition for outstanding researchers who are advancing the field forward. Download Full Image

The Culture and Ecology Lab focuses on how cultural patterns may be understood as responses to changes in basic ecological conditions (i.e., population density, pathogen prevalence or resource scarcity). His work hasn’t been limited to these topics, though. Varnum has studied everything from the importance of mate selection and kin care to how we may respond to the presence of alien life.

“There's been a number of different kinds of questions I've looked at, but most of them have really tried to focus on this question of thinking about ecology and its relationship to culture,” Varnum said.

Fellow status is awarded to Association for Psychological Science members who have made sustained outstanding contributions to the science of psychology in the areas of research, teaching, service and/or application, and additionally have at least 10 years of postdoctoral service. This status is typically awarded for the recipient's scientific contributions, but may also be awarded for exceptional contributions to the field through the development of research opportunities and settings.

Varnum was previously named an Association for Psychological Science Rising Star in 2016 as an early career recognition for outstanding researchers who are advancing the field forward. 

Varnum was also recognized this spring as part of a 43-person cohort of fellows from across the world, including peers like Azim Shariff, an associate professor from the University of British Columbia, who presented a research colloquium for the department last fall.

While the Rising Star award might have predicted this honor, it was incredibly validating for Varnum to receive this next award.

“It’s a huge honor to be recognized with this designation. Earlier I was looking up other members of the faculty at ASU who had received this award, and they are all giants in the field — Steven Neuberg, Robert Cialdini, Nancy Eisenberg, Doug Kenrick, Dave MacKinnon, Steve West and Leona Aiken,” said Varnum. “To even have my name on that list is amazing.”

The impact of seasons

When asked about his current research, Varnum described a systematic review aimed at understanding the role of the seasons on human psychology. When thinking about factors that cause variation in human behavior, psychologists often think about the role of factors like personality, development or culture. But one source of variability that’s often overlooked is that of seasons.

“There’s lots aspects of the human experience that are familiar — so familiar, in fact, that we don't actually think about them in a scientific sense, and one of these is the impact of seasons on our psychology,” Varnum said.

Our understanding of many non-human species includes an emphasis on seasonal effects on their behavior — brown bears that hibernate during the winter, or sockeye salmon that swim upstream for thousands of miles in the fall to spawn and die. Yet we tend not to pay much attention to seasonal aspects of human nature.

“Humans show not only physiological changes over the course of the year but also interesting psychological and behavioral changes in everything from mood to mating behavior to preferences for different colors and types of music,” Varnum said.

“All of these things show a kind of seasonal variation and fluctuation. We're investigating how there might be a hole, so to speak, in our picture of human nature having to do with the seasonality of our minds. One with implications for everything from the replicability of psychological findings to patterns of cultural variation.”

Responding to the pandemic

While undergraduate students in spring 2020 had their worlds turned upside down, many young faculty members did as well, and Varnum was no different.

“I think when this all hit, and especially early days of lockdown, like a lot of people I was really scared. I felt really helpless; the world seemed to be spiraling out of control. But one of the things I knew how to do was to think about and try to study the pandemic’s impact. It actually turned out to be a golden opportunity,” Varnum said.

Varnum and his colleagues were awarded an NSF Rapid Response Research Grant to study how the pandemic affects prejudices that arise from the behavioral immune system — the psychological mechanisms that allow individuals to detect the potential presence of infectious diseases or pathogens in their immediate environment and avoid them. One negative consequence of this behavioral immune system can be an increase in prejudice. The extent to which COVID-19 might have shaped changes in various kinds of prejudice is something the team is currently preparing for publication.

Together with his longtime collaborator Igor Grossmann, Varnum also helped lead two large-scale efforts to assess the ability of psychologists and other social scientists to accurately predict how the pandemic would affect societal trends.

“It turns out we weren’t very good at predicting how things like levels of political polarization, depression or violence might unfold over the course of the pandemic,” Varnum said. “This was true in studies when we asked for more spontaneous predictions and in formal forecasting tournaments where teams had time and past data to build models.

“I think an important step toward more accurate models of the human mind and social dynamics is assessing to what extent can we actually predict things in the real world — are psychologists’ intuitions actually any good? Are our formal forecasts any better? Realizing that psychologists typically aren’t any better at this kind of thing than the average person — and that generally, neither group is very accurate — should be a wake-up call.

“It may be that our understanding is really bounded by the sort of controlled environments of our studies and experiments. I think we could benefit from stepping outside of the lab more often to test our theories.” 

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


Monitoring the impact of Arizona's drought

Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy awards fellowship to ASU student to support research

June 7, 2022

Lower rainfall and higher temperatures have created ideal conditions to exacerbate Arizona’s longstanding drought. Entering 2022, more than half of the state remains in severe drought status and an additional 10% is enduring extreme drought. 

These conditions — including the drop in levels at crucial water sources such as Lake Mead and the Colorado River — drive the research of doctoral student Zhaocheng Wang, who is studying hydrosystems engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the seven Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Photo of a crop sprayer or irrigator in a dried filed. There is a close up on one of the sprayer nozzles. Arizona’s severe drought has created a lasting impact on farming communities, which have been forced to reduce their water usage and alter crop choice. Photo by Steve Harvey/UnSplash Download Full Image

Wang’s dissertation research focuses on combining modeling tools and earth observation products to better understand hydrological processes in the Southwestern United States. He has dedicated part of his dissertation research to determine the impacts the Colorado River drought will have on the people who live and work in Arizona.

“Water is a scarce and valuable resource for us living in the desert, especially under the impact of climate change,” Wang says. “A better understanding of hydrological processes can help us to better use and protect this resource and live a more sustainable lifestyle in preparation for a hotter and drier future.”

Wang was one of four students from across the U.S. and Mexico named as a 2022 Babbitt Center Dissertation Fellow by the Lincoln Institute’s Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, a leading nonprofit foundation supporting research and preservation of the Colorado River Basin.  

The Babbitt Center Dissertation Fellowship recognizes the work of outstanding doctoral students, provides a $10,000 stipend and allows access to a wealth of resources including collaboration with other researchers to support their efforts.

“Zhaocheng Wang has become a leading-edge researcher in the application of remote sensing and modeling for water resources applications,” says Enrique Vivoni, the Fulton Professor of Hydrosystems Engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and doctoral adviser to Wang. “His PhD work spans a broad range of topics, from quantifying water in dryland rivers to creating scenarios of future water use in cities and agricultural areas. And for each, he has demonstrated a keen awareness of novel, impactful outcomes.”

portrait of doctoral student

Zhaocheng Wang

Wang started his academic career in China at Hunan University. While there, he completed a study abroad year at ASU. He says he had the opportunity to take a course in hydrology with Associate Professor Giuseppe Mascaro and was encouraged by Associate Professor Zhihua Wang to pursue a graduate degree and conduct research landing him back at ASU after completing his undergraduate studies. 

“I think the hydrosystems engineering program, which consists of a group of faculties and students with diverse backgrounds and expertise, really created a dynamic and enthusiastic environment suitable for collaborative research drawing me back,” Wang says. 

In addition to the academic environment at ASU, Wang says Arizona’s drought conditions present unique opportunities for not only research but also application of what hydrosystems engineering students learn about the physical environment. 

“The unprecedented current drought in the Southwestern United States has triggered a Tier 1 water shortage,” Wang says. “As a result, the water delivered to Arizona from the Colorado River will be cut by 30% in 2022. Farmers in central Arizona — mostly in Pinal County — who have lower priority in water rights will have less water to use.”

He says farmers will have to make big changes to how they choose to use the water they are allotted, such as fallowing crop fields or choosing more drought-tolerant crops. Wang says it is also possible that farmers will use more groundwater to compensate for the cut from the Colorado River. These  decisions not only have an impact on farmers but employment in rural communities and the local economy, as well as food security in the Phoenix metropolitan area. 

Wang’s winning proposal for the Babbitt Dissertation Fellowship — “Monitoring Cropland Response to Water Shortage Using Remote Sensing Observations on a Cloud-Computing Platform” — focuses on integrated land and water management using a set of remote-sensing observations derived from satellites. He plans to utilize satellite imagery from Planet Labs, which are obtained from a constellation of CubeSats, or shoebox-size satellites, to map active croplands and derive acreage of different crop types. 

“This is important for us to understand the farmers’ choices under the conditions of a water shortage,” Wang says. 

The second part of the project is to simulate the amount of irrigation water used on those crops. Combined with records of water delivered from the Colorado River, this project has the potential to map groundwater use under the shortage.

“It is important to be concerned about the drought and understand the potential impacts of drought on our daily lives, such as more wildfires, less local food and fewer recreational activities due to low water levels in lakes,” Wang says. “The drought is getting worse and propagates faster and wider under the effects of climate change. We need to be prepared.” 

He says he hopes to present his research to local water management communities and solicit their feedback to develop the next phase of tools for more sustainable water resource management.

“I want to thank my adviser, Professor Enrique Vivoni, for his guidance and encouragement, especially in the process of writing this proposal,” Wang says. “Throughout my PhD, he spared no effort to foster my ability to think independently by encouraging me to write research proposals, including the one that won the Babbitt Fellowship.”

Monica Williams

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering