“If you believe that you are someone who can make good things happen or prevent bad things from happening, this changes the way you’re going to behave in the later situations….”

An Interview with Catherine Hartley, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology & Neural Science, New York University
By Michelle Johnson (February 1, 2019)

As a young person, were you always drawn to the area of science you’re researching now?

I think my interest in understanding how human minds work has been consistent. I spent a lot of my academic trajectory figuring out what level of investigation I wanted to study that at. Taking a cognitive psychology class as an undergraduate, I found that cognitive psychology traffics in representations and processes and models. I thought, “Well, but what are these systems? We’re made of cells, so what makes the system?” That led me to neuroscience, but then, all the neuroscience classes I was taking were largely cellular and molecular. And I thought, “This isn’t my level of description either. I’m not finding the study of the human mind in ion channels or propagation of action potentials.” I then found my way gradually to something at the intersection of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

How did you get interested in your current topic of research?

I actually didn’t go into academia for my first job right after college. I went to work for an artificial intelligence software company; they were trying to build intelligence into machines and software systems. It was really fun because it was an opportunity to think about what the ingredients are of intelligence. How do you begin to acquire knowledge? It was my first introduction to thinking about development and how intelligence emerges in an agent. Every time we see a child to grow up, what do they start with?

I study this from the perspective of motivated control of behaviors. How do our past positive and negative experiences or how reliable or controllable or predictable or uncertain or harsh or rewarding our environments are—how are all of these factors shaping our cognitive faculties, shaping our temperament? [How do] all of these things ultimately become our individual character?

What’s a real-world example of some of the things you study?

There’s a literature from the 1960s, 1970s in animal learning, including the seminal work by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier on “learned helplessness.” These studies showed different consequences for an animal that’s exposed to a stressor that they’re not able to control versus an animal that’s exposed to an identical stressor, but they’re able to exert some kind of active control over it. Animals that have no control showed deficits in learning and taxing effects on their objective measures of health and wellbeing, but having control protected against these effects..

When we have experiences of control, it alters our beliefs we have about how controllable our environments are. If you believe that you are someone who can make good things happen or prevent bad things from happening, this changes the way you’re going to behave in the later situations, you’re going to be more likely to explore and discover.

I’m especially interested in how growing up in a low- versus high- control environments affects children’s development. One ready example is growing up in poverty where the lack of many types of resources limits your ability to exert control over reinforcers. Am I going to have shelter, am I going to have food? We know that exposure to these kinds of low-control environments has later detrimental effects on executive function and a vulnerability toward anxiety and mood disorders. I think the positive spin on that is that there are important implications for how one should raise a child by not being overly protective and allowing them to actually make consequential choices and experience a sense of control.

To learn more about Dr. Hartley and her work, click here.

Click here to go back to the “Interviews with Scientists” page.