An interview with Dr. Amrisha Vaish

Dr. Amrisha Vaish is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where she has been since 2014.

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Please tell us about your research interests.

In my research, I aim to understand the origins of human sociality and cooperation. The starting point for this work is the observation that humans are tremendously cooperative beings and the proposal that humans’ ultra-cooperative, moral nature accounts for our success as a species. I want to understand the psychological attributes that motivate humans to engage in cooperation from early in our development. In particular, my research focuses on the ontogenetic emergence of the moral emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that make children successful cooperators. This includes the emergence of social emotions such as guilt and gratitude, emotional mechanisms such as sympathy and forgiveness, moral evaluations (both of others’ behavior and of our own), and moral behaviors such as prosocial behavior and the enforcement of moral norms. My research in these areas has shown that that by the toddler and preschool years, children are deeply motivated to enhance others’ welfare, enforce norms on others, repair their damaged relationships, and maintain their ongoing relationships. In all of these ways, humans uphold and promote cooperation from remarkably early on.

What has your journey been to this point?

The building blocks of my research program emerged while I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA, where I am fortuitously now faculty!). I started university with the vague aim of going on to become a journalist. However, an introductory course on child development opened my eyes to the possibility that studying children could reveal amazing insights into human nature. Pursuing an undergraduate Honors thesis at UVA under Angel Lillard introduced me to the beauty and power of the scientific method for studying development. Finally, in a fantastic upper-level seminar on morality with Jon Haidt (who was at UVA at the time), I learned that not just cognition but also emotions are crucial to morality, and that the evolutionary lens is one fascinating way to understand the origins of morality. By the time I graduated with my BA in Psychology and English, I was hooked — both on questions of development, particularly moral and emotional, as well as on pursuing these questions using experimental methods.

I was pretty sure at that point that I wanted to pursue an advanced degree in Psychology, but I also knew I wanted to gather more research experience first. So Angel Lillard suggested I look into a research assistant position at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Excited in equal part by the research opportunity and the adventure of living on my own in a new country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone, I went for it. And it was absolutely the right decision for me. For a little over a year, I was research assistant in Tricia Striano’s group and also had regular contact with Mike Tomasello’s group. I was exposed to cutting-edge ideas and methods in developmental and comparative psychology, and I also had the opportunity to carry out a few independent research projects from start to finish, including writing them up for publication. Thinking and being around research all the time turned out to be exhilarating, and my mind was quickly made up that I would pursue a PhD in developmental psychology.

I had the incredible fortune of attending the University of Chicago for my Master’s, where, under Amanda Woodward’s outstanding supervision, I conducted studies on infants’ understanding of others’ emotions and desires. My two years at U. Chicago were truly incredible in helping me develop as a researcher and thinker: I was constantly challenged to think more deeply, critically, and clearly, and I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity.

I then moved back to Leipzig, Germany, to conduct my PhD work with Mike Tomasello and Malinda Carpenter at the Max Planck Institute. This is when I began to work in earnest on questions of moral development, and to think about moral development from the perspective of the evolution of cooperation. I started off investigating the development of sympathy in young children, and moved on to the other areas of moral development that I described above. With Mike and Malinda’s brilliant input and guidance, I was able to foster and sharpen my ideas, hone my methodological competence, and really develop fully as a researcher. After I completed my PhD in 2010, I was lucky enough to stay on at the Max Planck Institute as a postdoc, and after two years, I received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation in Germany. That was my first independent funding, and it really boosted my self-sufficiency as a researcher and thinker. Then in 2014, I began as an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, which is where I currently am.

Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome?

 I have been extremely privileged on my path so far. I have had brilliant and supportive advisors and professors who have looked out for me and provided me with vital opportunities, and brilliant and supportive peers who have been instrumental in helping me reach my career goals. I have also been lucky enough to have sufficient financial resources and support along the way so that I could leave both undergraduate and graduate school without debt. These privileges are not ones I take for granted. Still, there have been a few challenges that are important to acknowledge and make a part of our discourse about challenges in academia. Perhaps the most important is the fundamental challenge that comes with being a woman in academia (or indeed almost any field). My field of developmental psychology has an unusually high percentage of women, and so I’ve actually been lucky enough not to face many of the kinds of discrimination that women in other fields face regularly. Nonetheless, I have experienced instances of being ignored or talked over in meetings, of being assumed to not be the person in charge, and of tokenism (being asked to serve on committees and panels in order to check off certain ‘diversity’ requirements). These instances, however small, can work to erode a person’s confidence, increase their imposter syndrome, and make them less likely to take on leadership positions or speak up in groups. This is perhaps even truer for minority women such as myself (I am South Asian, born and brought up in India), because we already feel a little out of place in most situations, even situations that have a large proportion of women. I know that many academic fields, including my own, are working actively to change these cultures and increase the true representation and inclusion of women and minorities, and that change is greatly needed and very welcome.

A second challenge is that of balancing work with family. I have two young children. My older one was born while I was a postdoc in Germany, and my younger one was born after I had begun my current position as Assistant Professor at UVA. I was extremely lucky to have some time off with both newborns, and to have an academic partner who also took some time off and had flexibility in his schedule. Nonetheless, the work does not simply stop in those early, sleep-deprived years, and there’s no template for how to navigate and balance the always-on work lifestyle that many academics have with the realities of having young children and the desire to spend quality time with them. To be sure, each person needs to find their own balance depending on their situation and needs. Still, I wished then – and still wish now – for a more open and honest conversation about how academics who are also caregivers (of young children, elderly parents, etc.) can go about managing and balancing the many demands placed on them without burning out and without feeling inadequate on many (or all) fronts. There is a great deal of evidence that these early pressures are especially high on women, who are often expected to take on more of the household and caregiving duties even as they keep up with their full-time work, and that these pressures can lead to a leaky pipeline that results in far fewer women achieving tenure or going on to leadership positions. While there are no easy answers, I do think it behooves all of us to have frank discussions about the challenges and to provide support wherever possible by not placing unrealistic demands and by seeing academics as people with full lives and unique challenges that need to be accounted for.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would give my younger self three pieces of advice. The first is: Find your people. This is about forming and maintaining at least a few strong social connections with people who can support you and whom you can support. Connecting and forming bonds with your peers in graduate school is a vital way to have a network of like-minded individuals who are striving towards similar goals and can scaffold each other on the way towards those goals. Graduate school can also be a time of great anxiety, and strong social networks can alleviate some of those anxieties and promote healthier approaches to work and life in general. The same applies to the first few years out of graduate school: social support can be a lifeline during the early years and should not be under-estimated.

The second piece of advice is: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s easy to forget during the PhD years, and even the first few years out of graduate school, that you’re in this for the long haul. You have to pace yourself so you don’t burn out while trying to race to a finish line. Indeed, there is no finish line because there will always be more questions to answer and more research to do – that, after all, is the beauty and pull of what we do! So it’s important to develop healthy work habits that keep you pushing forward one step at a time and keep you motivated in the long run.

And finally, my third piece of advice is: Read while you can! I did not realize how much time I truly had to read and think while I was a graduate student and postdoc. As an Assistant Professor (particularly now with young children), my day is cut up into so many more pieces and I have so many more responsibilities in addition to research (including teaching, mentoring, administrative, and home-related) that I simply don’t have many long stretches of time in which to lose myself in articles and books in the way that I used to. So I would advise my younger self to make optimal use of the time available to read more widely and deeply and across disciplines.

What are your predictions for your field in the near future?

Developmental psychology has made enormous strides over the last few decades, with methodological advances that have allowed us unimaginable insights into how children, and even very young infants, think about and see their world. These advances will grow and converge in fascinating and important ways. Already, neuroscience, physiological, hormonal, genetic, and epigenetic techniques are being brought together and combined with behavioral methods to gain a much fuller picture of the developing child. There is also a move in developmental science for open science methods and enhancing reproducibility, and I think this will be a vital new frontier for the field. Finally, as the field expands and increasingly includes researchers from across the globe, I think we will finally begin to take seriously the importance of including children from across the globe in our science so that developmental science moves from being a science of the western child to a science of all children.


Photo credit: Dan Addison, UVA

Go to the profile of Mary Elizabeth Sutherland

Mary Elizabeth Sutherland

Senior Editor, Nature

behavioral sciences, including computational social science, social science, sociology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, social and affective neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, neuroscience

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