Kudos Column: Dr. Alin Coman
Current position and teaching
I am an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, with a joint appointment between the Psychology Department and Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. Psychology has been my discipline of focus, with an atypical trajectory. Following an intense initial exposure during my college years - in Romania students essentially major in their discipline of choice from their freshman year - I undertook a much broader exploration of the social sciences as part of my graduate school education - at the New School for Social Research one is encouraged to take courses across disciplines. As a result of this trajectory, the courses I typically teach at Princeton span from behavioral approaches to public policy, to the psychology of interacting minds, and to the formation of collective memories.
As a junior in college I was in search of ideas to explore. Luck had it that I became a research assistant for a project that empirically investigated the formation of collective memories. I was fascinated with understanding how communities of individuals form collective memories and beliefs. This fascination was due to the realization that there are a multitude of situations which result in shared mnemonic representations in communities of individuals, from groups as small as families to those as large as nations. A prominent topic in the social sciences, research on collective memories has been, for the most part, absent in psychology. This lacunae was unfortunate, since collective memories are the building blocks of our collective identities, of our individual and group decisions and actions. Early on, I grappled with questions such as: Is psychology even relevant when it comes to the formation of collective memories? How would one study mnemonic convergence in large groups of individuals? What are the research questions that would be of interest to both psychologists and policy makers?
Along with my graduate school colleagues, and under the supervision of a wonderfully insightful advisor, Bill Hirst, we started to look at the processes that lead to cognitive alignment in conversations. This turned out to be the key to exploring the psychology of collective memory. For my Masters thesis, I showed that New Yorkers jointly remembering their September 11 memories synchronized their mnemonic representations (Coman, Manier, & Hirst, 2009). Memories mentioned during their conversations became more accessible for both the speaker and their listener, while memories related to those discussed become less accessible, again, for both speaker and listener. Subsequent work I conducted during grad school showed that this conversationally induced synchronization propagates in chains of connected participants (Coman, & Hirst, 2012), and can account for community wide convergence (Coman, Kolling, Lewis, & Hirst, 2012).
Building on this work, we are currently expanding the psychological approach to the formation of collective memories in my lab at Princeton. Thus far, our work has been dominated by empirical studies that built on the assumption that collective memories are formed because similar cognitive processes are triggered during conversational remembering between the interactants. Current projects investigate socio-cognitive biases as another important driver of mnemonic convergence. With my graduate students we explore, for instance, how ingroup favoritism affects the way people remember and communicate ingroup atrocities, justifications, and apologies (with Kulani Panapitya-Dias) and how the individual propensity to focus on and share information that is consistent with one’s moral values could result in insulated moral communities (with Nick Rohrbaugh).
The approach we are proposing is part of an emerging field in the social sciences aimed at connecting micro-level local dynamics with large-scale social phenomena. Using targeted experimental methods in conjunction with computer simulations and social network analysis, our goal is to promote the understanding of complex social, cultural, and political phenomena. This understanding has the potential to establish bridges across the social sciences. Similarly important, it has widespread social importance. Policy makers could use these findings to measure and forge convergent memories in communities to alleviate the negative consequences of biological and social epidemics (Coman, & Berry, in press), practitioners interested in collective intelligence and collective decision-making could learn how information distribution in social networks might affect task performance (Coman, Coman, & Hirst, 2013), and teachers could develop better strategies to create collective knowledge in their students (Coman, Momennejad, Drach, & Geana, in preparation). By developing an approach to mnemonic convergence that builds on the burgeoning work on communicative influences on memory, our research program offers the means of going beyond the present methodologies in addressing real world large-scale social phenomena.
The research we conduct in my Socio-Cognitive Processes Lab has been published in various peer-reviewed psychology journals, such as Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, and Perspectives in Psychological Science. It has been feaured in popular press, mainly in venues such as Scientific American Mind and Time magazines.
Lab website: http://www.princeton.edu/~acoman/Home.html
Address: PSH 529 Perestman-Scully Hall
Princeton, NJ 08540