Research profile: Anne Wilson

Wilfrid Laurier University psychology professor Anne Wilson, part of the university’s social psychology program, works with students as she researches self-image and the psychological perception of time. She holds a Tier II Canada Research Chair in social psychology, which helps fund her work at Laurier.

“I’m interested in people and the weird things that people do in daily life,” she said.

“It’s a fun area of research because almost everyone can resonate with it.”

“People tend to see themselves as having undergone a dramatic improvement through time,” Wilson said, pointing to her work with young adults. “My research generally shows that that is kind of inaccurate.”

Whether or not someone undergoes a true improvement over time, people tend to make themselves feel better about their current state by thinking of their past self as worse.

“When people think back to the past, the further away it seems to them, the more they criticize that past self,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s recent work has focused on identity and the implications self-image and self-esteem can have for peoples’ behaviour and decisions.

Psychological time becomes important when someone perceives positive or negative events in their life as closer or farther away based on how the events reflect on their sense of self.

“One of the things that students can do to protect their self esteem is to push off failures and bring forward successes,” she said, using the example of a successfully or not so successfully completed midterm as something to be either pushed away or brought closer.

“When something feels really recent, even when you know it was awhile ago, it tends to directly affect your self-image,” she explained. “So if you did badly you feel like a failure today, if it feels distant then it no longer has any implications for your identity.”

Psychological time can contribute to a person’s behaviour, including procrastination.

Wilson has tested the effects of how far from the present students perceive a test to be on their study habits.

Among the Laurier student subjects of two different studies conducted in her lab, Wilson and her colleagues found that students that said a test seemed further away, possibly in order to protect their self-esteem and push away the idea of failure, scored worse overall on the actual test.

“People do these things sometimes to protect their sense of self but that can actually backfire sometimes when it also makes them less motivated to pursue goals,” she explained, noting that this can have consequences for things with long-term benefits including health goals, financial planning and environmental responsibility.

“Getting people to focus on the positive outcomes in the long term is really important, and if you can make those feel really close to people, it seems to help motivate their behaviour today,” Wilson said.