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Student Spotlight: Josh Wondra

Josh Wondra

Josh Wondra, Ph.D. Candidate, Social Psychology, Predoctoral Fellowship

Josh admits, “Applying to graduate school, I didn’t know what I was doing.” He applied big, contrary to the some misguided advice from his undergraduate professors. U-M was on the list because a faculty member talked about U-M as THE place for psychology. He explains, “When I looked on the department website, everyone was engaged in so many different topics and I thought it all was interesting. I picked a few people I wanted to work with, and it was at recruitment weekend that I really got excited. I liked the grad students – they were so smart, collaborative, and very friendly. They described a balance between hard work and real life that excited me. The culmination of resources, faculty, and grad students made me think U-M would be a great fit for me.”

And he says it has been, particularly around other grad students. “That’s what I love the most. I’ve come up with collaborations with office mates and other grad students who I’ve heard present their research. That peer group has been helpful. My advisors have been great, as has been taking classes, research, and conversations with others in the department. I’m going to have a great professional network when I leave here,” he says.

Josh’s research examines empathy – feeling emotions for other people when we are not in the same situations as them. He says, “I was interested in this subject before I came to U-M. There are a lot of interesting questions to tackle but I didn’t know how to go about it.”

He became interested particularly after taking a class on emotion with his current advisor. He recalls, “Work on empathy is separate from emotion. The two areas of research have been split. My advisor works on how the way people perceive a situation they are in can lead to different emotional responses, and I thought this is the missing piece in the empathy research. I wanted to pursue how empathy might have more to do with how we perceive the situations others are in than with the emotions we think they feel.

Using mixed research methods, Josh collected data by exposing people to someone’s emotional situation and asking questions about that situation. He has used material such as staged newspaper articles, videos, photos with captions in the style of Humans of New York social media posts, and a This American Life-type radio show that participants review. He then measures how subtle changes in the material affect their empathetic responses.

He also uses facial electromyography to see if people differ in how much they mimic someone’s emotional expressions when the other person’s emotional reactions are similar to their own and when the other person’s emotional reactions are stronger than their own.

Josh explains, “I’m also exploring what perspective taking does for the emotions people feel for others. Sometimes people think that perspective taking is necessary for empathy. But I’m finding that if it’s clear what is going on in a situation, perspective taking doesn’t add much. That might change when it’s hard to understand what’s happening to the other person.”

He’s also researching what personal experience does for empathy. He shares, “The common belief is too simple: ‘I see what is happening, relive a similar experience and have the same response I had to my experience.’” I believe that is a little too simple for what personal experience is going to do. We empathize with people we don’t have shared experiences with all the time. Take earthquake survivors, for example. You can feel something for them, despite the fact that most of us have not lived through a really devastating earthquake. I’m trying to look at how we use our own experiences to interpret what’s happening to someone.”

Josh’s overview of the varied research he’s undertaking shows the potential for years of work in this field. He adds, “I may have too many projects. Part of the challenge with my research is to carve out one area that lets me learn something and to make sure the direction isn’t too scattered. There are so many directions to go. This is really unexplored territory.”

His dissertation is a culmination of papers that summarize his various research projects on empathy. It will broadly discuss empathy, how it works, the strengths and limitations of what we know, and what is missing.

Josh will be on the job market this year looking for an academic position, but he plans to complete a postdoc to learn other research methods and continue his empathy research. Right now, he is focused on getting papers published. He says, “I’m interested in a faculty position, but am open to other opportunities. I think it is important to create more pipelines to industry positions, especially for the social sciences.”

Josh is working in his department and particularly in his lab to develop a professional network. He explains, “There are lots of students coming out of my department or out of my lab, people working in industry, and after a few years, new incoming students don’t know anyone who’s gone before them. Now I’m trying to reach out to grads over the past few years, learn about their careers, and see if they would be willing to talk to current students. I’m trying to get involved with these alumni to make it clear what kind of careers are available in the U-M psych network.”

Seeking a solution to a problem before him, he says, “I’m a big believer in grassroots movements. There are a lot of resources that we would like to see from administrators, but I think the fastest way to get them is to work with your peers and take action to make it happen.”

He does unwind often, with other friends over a local microbrew or with his grad student soccer team. Josh says, “Grad school has been a good experience. My colleagues are supportive, I have good relationships with my advisors, and Ann Arbor is a good place to be. It may be a smaller town but there is still a lot to do.”