2012 UCSB Ph. D. Joni Sasaki wins Society of Experimental Social Psychology Dissertation Award

October 16, 2013

Joni Sasaki, who earned her Ph. D. in 2012 in Social Psychology from UCSB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences was the 2013 recipient of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP) Dissertation Award. Joni is an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP) is a major scientific organization dedicated to the advancement of social psychology. Founded in the 1960s, SESP is a prestigious society that holds an annual convention, publishes two scientific journals, and recognizes outstanding achievement with several awards at its annual convention each year. Membership is by invitation only, and typically one must be five years post-Ph.D. before being eligible for consideration for membership. Currently there are more than 900 members of SESP.

In 1972 SESP instituted the Outstanding Dissertation Award to recognize one person each year whose dissertation was deemed particularly outstanding. The award carries immediate membership into the Society and the award recipient presents a talk based on the dissertation at the annual convention. The award is both competitive and prestigious, and many past recipients have gone on to become prominent scientific leaders in the field.

For her dissertation, “Religion is what individuals and societies make of it: Moderators of religion’s effects at the level of person, situation, and culture” Joni was selected as the 2013 recipient of the Outstanding Dissertation Award. She received her award at the annual meeting on September 28th 2013, in Berkeley, California.

Joni described her dissertation: “Religion may be one of the oldest forms of large-scale social interaction, and it can be found in some form across every human culture. Nevertheless, many basic questions about religion have yet to be fully answered from a psychological perspective, and furthermore, religion has commonly been understood as having monolithic effects on psychology. In my dissertation, I demonstrate that the way religion impacts people’s thoughts and behaviors are not always uniform, but rather, may be qualified by aspects of the individual or circumstance. In particular, I investigate classic topics in social psychology—coping responses and values, politics, and prosocial behavior—to show how religion can have varying impacts on these outcomes depending on key moderators at the levels of culture, situation, and the individual.”

Joni is the first winner in the history of the UCSB Social Psychology Program, and she noted her appreciation for the training she received: “I am very fortunate for my training at UCSB, and I can't think of a better place to have done my graduate work. The atmosphere there was great for productivity because there is a tradition of honest criticism, and the standards are very high. I think this makes for really high-quality work, and I very much appreciated all the feedback I got from faculty and fellow students over the years. At the same time, so many people there were very supportive and encouraging. I think this was also important for the success of the grad students there.”

One noteworthy point regarding this award is that Dr. Sasaki’s graduate advisor at UCSB, Dr. Heejung Kim, was the recipient of the 2002 SESP Outstanding Dissertation Award. In the 41-year history of the award, this is only the second time that both mentor and student have been recipients of this award. Joni described her experience with Dr. Kim: “I am especially grateful for everything I learned from working with Heejung. I initially applied to work with her because I hoped to gain expertise in cultural psychology, but I left with so much more than that. My training in her lab, integrating cultural and biological approaches, has shaped the way I address and even think about research questions. Independent of her knowledge and expertise, she is a fantastic mentor, which I believe is one of the main reasons I have been successful. She really cares about and prioritizes her grad students, and I think it shows.”

SESP Dissertation Award winners have gone on to become leaders of the field of social psychology. UCSB has two on our faculty, Dr. Kim and Professor (and chair of the department) Diane Mackie. As to her ongoing and future research plans, Joni shared: “At York University, I've established the Culture and Religion Lab, and in my research, I hope to change the way religion is understood in psychology by situating it within the socio-cultural context in which it transpires and in the individual who experiences it. I also hope to continue integrating cultural and biological approaches, working toward stronger models of the process through which socio-cultural and biological factors interact and lead to psychological outcomes.”

The Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences congratulates Joni Sasaki on this auspicious award.

Article written by: David Sherman & Dave Hamilton Photographs by: Thai Chu (Sasaki) & Taraneh Mojaverian (Sasaki & Kim)