ASU professor studies how people view themselves

By

Robert Ewing

The Department of Psychology at Arizona State University promoted Virginia Kwan to full professor this year. Kwan joined ASU in 2009 and directs the Culture and Decision Science Lab.

Her research focuses on self-perception, or how people see themselves. Research in her lab examines how people's self-perception changes in relation to other people, to nonhuman entities like cybertechnologies and to versions of themselves at different points in time.

Kwan’s journey to ASU began in Hong Kong and included stops in Massachusetts, Minnesota, California and New Jersey.

One stop in California was a sabbatical at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Kwan credits the time she spent there with broadening her research program to include how inanimate objects influence self-perception.

“And my research went to the dogs,” Kwan joked. She teamed up with Sam Gosling, a former labmate at University of California, Berkeley, who studies canine personality and how people anthropomorphize nonhumans such as pets.

Kwan said she started thinking about her work from a wider perspective and began to think about self-perception as a special case of perception between people. Her lab now focuses on how different situations can affect how people view themselves and interact with others and technologies.

Based on how people relate to others — if they have anxious or avoidant relationships, for example — Kwan and her lab can predict how they use mobile devices like a cell phone.

“We can tell if they keep the cell phone close to their bed, and if they engage in inappropriate and dangerous texting habits, like while driving,” Kwan said.

Kwan said mentoring ASU students is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job. She enjoys it so much that she and her husband Oliver Graudejus, associate research professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, are volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona. They spend every other Saturday with their little brothers, and one of their first Saturday activities was, of course, to attend the ASU Open Door event on the Tempe campus last year. Another fun activity they did together was participating in lessons with the Arizona Model Aviators, where kids learn to fly and build model airplanes as big as they are.