Former IT specialist, psych Ph.D. explores implicit cognition

What started as a decision to take a psychology course on a whim during his sophomore year of college became a life-long passion for Jeremy Cone, assistant professor of psychology.

In his second year at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Cone bought his textbooks for his spring classes during winter break. One of those textbooks was for a psychology class, which he decided to enroll in to get a change of pace from his regimented computer science major courses. He finished reading the entire textbook before the class even began.

“[Social psychology] was this way for you to try to answer questions that we all have exposure to, and that we have intrinsic interests in, but that we could do scientifically, that we could use this rigorous method to try to come to an understanding about the building blocks and mechanics of [human interaction] … and I just love that element of it,” Cone said.

Now, it’s no surprise that Cone is making big strides in the world of social psychology. As a specialist on the study of implicit cognition – subconscious attitudes and how different situations can impact impressions people have of others – he has found substantive evidence suggesting that implicit cognition can change more quickly than traditional belief suggests.

Much of his research, in fact, takes place on campus at the College’s Implicit Cognition and Evaluation Lab (ICE), which Cone founded in 2015. It currently has seven student research assistants.

Surprisingly, Cone did not, in fact, conduct psychology research immediately after graduation. Instead, he worked as an internet technology specialist in the suburbs of Toronto.

Cone realized, however, that his true passion was in psychology rather than IT. “[I] knew very quickly that it was a very poor life choice for me,” he said.

Transitioning from a job in IT to forge a new path in his life in psychology, though a deliberate choice, also happened by chance in some ways.

“None of these were systematic ideas that I was hoping to study for 10 years,” Cone said. “These were things that I sort of randomly fell into and developed a passion for while I was getting exposure to them.”

But he views the 10-year process of getting a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in psychology as the best decision in his life. During those years, he met several professors who shaped his interests in social judgment (psychological decisions people make in everyday life), introducing him to areas such as human cooperation and the relationship between subconscious thinking and achieving goals.

Much like the rest of Cone’s academic journey, his introduction to the College was also by chance: A colleague at Cornell University happened to mention an opening for a visiting professorship in the College’s psychology department for the 2012-13 academic year.

Cone got the position, and his time teaching at the College was, he said, the second-best year of his life (the first being the year he went back to get his bachelor’s degree in psychology). It was the culmination of his studies to discover a passion not only for researching psychology, but also for teaching it.

“I felt like I had purpose and meaning in my life in a way that wasn’t true when I was working in internet technology,” Cone said.

And it wasn’t just teaching in general that made Cone feel fulfilled. It was teaching specifically at the College, a place that is a perfect environment for both research and interaction between professors and students in the classroom, according to him.

“I honestly believe there’s no better place to teach in the world. … The environment here is just so invigorating and the students are so amazing and motivated and there is this amazing effort-to-reward ratio in teaching,” Cone said.

The College’s educational philosophy, Cone said, is one that prevents either lab work or teaching from taking precedence over the other; such “synergy,” as he describes it, between research and education makes for the best project ideas.

Now, much of his work involves learning more about the impact implicit cognition can have on real life situations. The group of research assistants in the ICE lab conducts online tests to see if certain information changes the subconscious impressions participants get of different hypothetical characters and people. The results from these tests have challenged traditional pedagogy, which suggests that implicit evaluations take gradual amounts of time to change.

Katie Flaharty ’18 is a member of the ICE lab and is working with Cone on her senior thesis about psychology and visual representations. She said that ICE explores the unintuitive aspects of the human mind.

“I think the most fascinating thing about the research in the ICE lab is that most of it has to do with cognitive processes that we aren’t quite aware of,” Flaharty said. “The ‘implicit’ in the ‘Implicit Cognition and Evaluation’ title of the lab indicates that most of what we study is the relationship between attitudes and evaluations that can be accessed by our conscious processes versus those that are more automatic and potentially subconscious. It’s really cool to see the mismatch between what we think we feel and what our automatic ‘gut response’ says we feel.”

With endless possibilities for more projects, Cone and the rest of the ICE lab have their hands full, but not without some fun, thanks to the exciting and invigorating work environment Cone creates for the team.

So, to all sophomores: Think carefully about what class you’ll take in the spring! It might just change your life like it did for Cone.

One comment

  1. Took his social psych class senior year – I didn’t know about this back story! that is pretty awesome.

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