Priming the Mind

Lawrence Williams Jr. (pictured left) loves blood. Don’t misunderstand him: The soft-spoken 27-year-old describes himself as “pacifistic” and dislikes the idea of people hurting each other. But when it comes to entertainment, he has a brutal streak. He slaughters space aliens on Xbox as part of his daily exercise routine. His taste in film runs to Quentin Tarantino–in music, to Three 6 Mafia and the Diplomats. “I want the violence to be as realistic as possible in the media,” he says. “I don’t want the director to go halfway.”

While the make-believe hero in Williams is blasting his enemies to bits, the scientist in him is wondering why. The puzzle grew especially vivid during the 2 years he spent working at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Boston, Massachusetts, after he graduated from Harvard University. “Real pain and violence is associated with serious, sometimes debilitating mental disease,” he explains. “So it’s surprising to me that fictional pain and violence is entertaining.” The puzzle propelled him to Yale University, where he’s now a third-year graduate student in social psychology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. His work there immerses him in questions about how metaphors guide our thinking and emotions, often without our knowledge.

That’s exactly how graduate school should work, says John Bargh, his adviser. “Lawrence has a burning question that he’s very curious about. It’s something nobody else is really working on. Most people just wring their hands, but Lawrence asks why. A strong curiosity like that is a hallmark of future success in the field. A lot of people follow what’s being funded, but that’s the philistine approach.”

Distance makes the heart grow calmer

For his master’s thesis, Williams decided to prime people with stimuli of spatial distance and then expose them to what he calls “aversive media,” which includes violent stories but also embarrassing or scary ones. Because we live in the physical world, he explains, we’re very familiar with physical concepts such as spatial distance, or warmth and cold. We build more abstract concepts on top, unconsciously using those basic physical concepts as metaphors.

Williams hypothesized that a simple experience of physical, spatial distance would trigger feelings of psychological distance and that those feelings, in turn, allow people to enjoy aversive media. He designed a series of studies to test the idea.

In one experiment, he and his colleagues asked volunteers to draw pairs of dots on graph paper. They told the participants exactly where to put the dots: close together for some the volunteers, and far apart for others. All the participants then read an embarrassing passage from a novel–in which a woman opens a magazine to find that her ex-boyfriend has written an article about her, called “Loving a Larger Woman”–and rated how much they enjoyed the story. Just as Williams had expected, the participants who drew the dots far apart liked the passage more.

In his next study, after the volunteers drew the dots, they read a book excerpt in which a man beats his brother with a rock after a car crash. When the readers rated their emotional experience, Williams found, people who were told to draw the dots close together reported feeling more negative emotions.

For his Ph.D., Williams is continuing to explore how basic physical sensations affect our emotions without our knowledge by triggering concepts with which they’re metaphorically linked. We call people “warm” or “cold,” but are those just words? In one experiment, Williams had an undergraduate assistant meet each volunteer at the door and bring him or her up to the lab. In the elevator, the assistant asked the volunteer to hold her cup of coffee for a few seconds while she jotted down some notes. Sometimes she had warm coffee, sometimes iced. When the volunteers got to the lab, Williams asked them to evaluate an imaginary person described in emotionally neutral terms, such as “intelligent, skillful, and industrious.”

The volunteers who touched the hot coffee cup rated the person as being warmer–more generous, more sociable, and so on. The physical sensation of touching something warm influenced their assessments of the “warmth” of someone’s personality. But when Williams asked them to rate the person on traits that had nothing to do with the warm/cold distinction, such as honesty, strength, and seriousness, he found no differences between the two groups. He’s running further experiments to make sure the results can’t be explained by factors such as the smell of hot coffee or whether some like it hot and some like it cold.

Subjects, assistants, and mentors

Williams’s original “burning question”–why some people enjoy aversive media–may be on the back burner, but it’s not getting cold. Not everyone loves to watch fictional characters get blasted to pieces or humiliated—the question is why anybody does, and clearly many do. Hollywood thrillers and TV sitcoms are big business.

Still, Williams’s “ongoing career goal” of testing these hypotheses might have to wait for more resources. “At a large state university, I would have more access to people who are willing to have you do strange things to them and not tell them why until the end of the experiment,” Williams says wistfully, glancing around at the boxes of soda and candy stacked against the walls of the lab, which the researchers use to bribe volunteers. At a small school like Yale, it’s a challenge to find enough subjects. The researchers there have to come up with creative solutions, such as taking the train down to New York City to collect data in Grand Central Station.

“But I’m not crying over here,” he adds quickly. “Yale is a great context–my adviser, the people in the lab, my undergraduate assistants.” He makes sure his assistants have a hand in every aspect of the experiments: designing them, collecting data, analyzing it. He knows how effective that attitude can be because it’s how his own advisers treated him. “It gives my assistants a sense of ownership,” he says. “Anything I can do to keep their morale high is great for me, too, because it means I get more work done.”

“It sounds corny, but Lawrence is an amazing role model,” says Julie Huang, a second-year graduate student in Bargh’s lab. “I’ve learned a lot from watching him pursue his ideas. He’s very goal-oriented, very proactive. He doesn’t go off track. Before I even start an experiment, I go straight to Lawrence for advice. He tells me to keep it simple. He’s incredibly sharp and quick to understand what kind of information you need and how to narrow down what you want to explore.”

A psychologist’s boyhood

Some of Williams’s most important early role models, he says, were negative ones. “I wasn’t impressed by most of the men I knew growing up. They didn’t have steady jobs. They didn’t seem happy or satisfied with where they were. I knew I didn’t want to be like them. I thought, ‘I can go to college. I can do things with my life. I don’t have to stay here.'”

Williams was born in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City. His mother, a postal worker, and his father, an odd-job man who worked mostly as an exterminator, split up when little Lawrence was 2. His father died 6 years later and his mother moved the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where his grandfather, a World War II veteran who had lost his eyesight to diabetes, soon joined them. Lawrence helped his mother take care of his little half-brother and sister. “I had a middle role as a sort of parent,” he says–an early experience of mentoring. “My sister is 17 now. I just wrote a very long, detailed, heartfelt letter telling her how important it is to study for her SATs.”

Williams did well in school without too much effort, but discipline problems kept him out of the gifted and talented program through most of middle school. “At least once a year, I would get suspended for getting in a fight, usually defending myself. I was always tall growing up, which made me a target.” He was moved into the gifted and talented program in eighth grade, but he almost got thrown out again for what he calls a goofy stunt: imitating a magician he’d seen on the Arsenio Hall Show who carried a razor blade in his mouth and used it to do tricks. “It was a feat to be able to put the razor blade in and eat and talk and not hurt yourself. It’s all about being aware of where the sharp part is.”

Williams spent the summer after 10th grade at the Villanova HHMI-NSF Young Scholars Program, a math-and-science program for underrepresented minorities sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation. He credits his guidance counselor, Elanor Gatling, for encouraging him to apply. “She was one of the few black guidance counselors at my high school at the time, so she had close attachments to the black students,” he says. “She was pivotal in making sure I made the most out of myself.”

The next summer, he went to another math-and-science program, this one part of The Governor’s School of New Jersey at Drew University. He was no stranger to students from other backgrounds–his best friends during high school included three Pakistani boys, one Haitian, one Guyanan, a couple of Brazilians, one African American, and one boy who was half Puerto Rican, half white. But The Governor’s School was also Williams’s first exposure to the ambitious children of the well-to-do. He was always keenly aware of which day his mother got her paycheck, but his classmates in the program spent money without a second thought. They played musical instruments. They knew exactly which elite university they wanted to go to. “I thought, if these people are saying they can go to these places, maybe I can too.”

Williams arrived at Harvard intending to go into biochemistry, but he found himself drawn instead to psychology, “a more macrolevel analysis of people and how they think. Everyday life is very complicated, just as DNA is complicated and protein structures are complicated. But the end results–why do people do what they do, how do they do what they do?–that’s what I’m interested in.”

Bargh sees no limit to where Williams’s curiosity could take him. “I think the world of Lawrence. He’s a big deal. He’s also very sweet, smart, hard-working, thoughtful–we’re so lucky he came to Yale.” Bargh concedes that he’s drinking hot coffee as he says this, but it doesn’t matter, he insists. He would say the same thing if it were iced.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700028

Europe’s brain gain

A ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for Scientists?