October Lab of the Month: Dr. Kristin Laurin studies the interplay between motivation and religion

How does your political and societal understanding of the world shape your goals and motivations? At the MAGIC Lab, Dr. Kristin Laurin explores the complex relationship between motivations and beliefs, connecting the dots between goal pursuits to areas like religious belief systems, political ideologies, moral codes and more.

Laurin, assistant professor and director of MAGIC Lab, joined the Department of Psychology in July 2016.  Her research centers around the various motivations that drive people’s understanding of politics, religion and the nature of the world. Laurin recently received an International Social Cognition Network (ISCON)’s Early Career Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Study of Social Cognition for her research accomplishments.

In this Q & A, Laurin shares her interests towards the study of motivation and some of the exciting themes revealed in carrying out research at the MAGIC lab.

What is the lab’s primary research focus?

Our research covers such a range of topics that this is a hard question to answer! We study everything having to do with big beliefs (political ideologies, religious beliefs, morality), goal pursuit (how people self-regulate and what shapes their important goals), and the connection between the two (how sometimes people’s politics, religion or morality serves particular goals, for example).

Why are people attracted to religion?

Different people have made different arguments on this front. In our lab, we have suggested that religion can help provide people with the sense that events in the world follows a predictable order, which in turn can help reassure them that their goals are worth pursuing, because their efforts will indeed be rewarded. But one of our ongoing projects is to compare those kinds of explanations (the idea that religion serves one or several functions in people’s lives) with other kinds (the idea that religion is merely a byproduct of how our minds work, or that people are primarily religious because they are pushed in that direction by cultural forces) and see how they stack up.

Can you describe some of the research that the lab does? (What are members of your lab working on?)

One recurring theme of our research is what explains the persistence of social status over time—why is it that the status you’re born with (and to a large extent the status your parents are born with) is such a good predictor of the status you’ll die with? Why is it that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Of course, there are tons of explanations for this that cover many different levels of analysis. In our lab we look at psychological factors—for instance in one set of projects that Adam Alic is working on we look at how individuals with lower socioeconomic status are systematically blocked from being motivated to improve their status. In a new project led by Holly Engstrom, we are trying to apply a psychological lens to the idea that religion can also play a role in keeping the poor in their place.

Another recurring theme is rationalization—people’s tendency to reconstrue the world, to change the way they think about it and see it, in order to make themselves feel better about a particular aspect of reality that’s disturbing them. For instance, in past work we’ve looked at how women deal with evidence of gender inequality, finding that they reassure themselves that everything is ok by deciding that the inequality probably has something to do with women making different choices, or men being more decisive or even more competent. Right now, Ryan Dwyer is leading a project where we look at how good does rationalizing actually make people feel. Anita Schmalor is working with me on a project where we look at how people rationalize their own unethical behavior—how we maintain a view of ourselves as good people in the face of everything we do that’s morally questionable. And if you can’t think of anything questionable you’ve done lately, well that’s exactly what we’re talking about 😉

What is unique about the lab’s research?

I think what’s really unique about our lab is how wide ranging the topics are that we cover. It can make lab meetings challenging, because the students’ projects can be so disconnected from each other, but at the same time it keeps them exciting, because we’re always teaching each other new things!

How did you develop an interest your line of research?

If I’m being honest, I started out adopting the research interests of people I felt like I had a good connection with and wanted to work with. As time went on I realized that I have a real passion for social justice, which motivates a lot of my work—although that means I’m also constantly trying to guard against the possibility that it biases me! Sometimes I get led down certain paths by students—for example, Rachele Benjamin and Gordon Heltzel have both got me working on projects more directly related to politics than I normally would, and I’m loving it!

What does the lab do for fun?

  1. Argue
  2. Eat snacks
  3. Go on hikes with the rest of the MECC lab (which is the meta-lab that Steve Heine, Ara Norenzayan, Mark Schaller and I share)


Dr. Kristin Laurin earns early career research award

Faculty Q&A: Dr. Kristin Laurin explores why we do what we do