Understanding people

Larsen studies the many aspects of the human personality

It has been more than three decades since Randy J. Larsen, Ph.D., the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development, completed his undergraduate studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

But Larsen, chair of the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences, still grapples with the psychological issues that confront the typical college freshman.

Randy J. Larsen, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences, meets with third-year psychology doctoral student Tim Bono. Bono credits Larsen as a central force in his education. “Not only is he one of the world’s most brilliant minds in personality psychology, but he is also one of the most down-to-earth, supportive and relatable people I have ever met,” Bono says. “He is truly one of Washington University’s gems.”

This semester, he’s co-teaching a freshman survey class on the “Psychology of Early Adulthood,” a new course he developed to help students gain a better understanding of themselves and the social, personal and cognitive issues confronting young adults during the college years.

“We wanted to put together a course that covered what psychology knows about issues of importance to college students,” Larsen says.

“For example, what is going on with brain development during these years, and why this is a very good time to learn as well as a very bad time to abuse alcohol and drugs. What do we know about human memory that is relevant for accelerated learning and efficient study methods? What do we know about social support and how people make friends and develop relationships?” he says.

“What do we know about how people find meaning and satisfaction in their work?” he continues. “What does psychology know about love and the various challenges to developing loving relationships? These are the kinds of questions around which we designed the course.”

Larsen has spent much of his career exploring similar questions. A member of the faculty since 1998 and chair of psychology since 2004, Larsen has an international reputation for his work on emotion and personality.

His research on human emotions — primarily in terms of differences between people — has yielded new understanding on such topics as jealousy, attraction, happiness and strategies for the self-management of self-esteem. He is currently interested in mood regulation and what people can do to get themselves out of unpleasant moods.

Sparking emotions

Randy J. Larsen spends time each year vacationing with his family in his wife’s native country of Croatia, including this trip last summer to the island of Lopud off the coast of Croatia. Clockwise from left: wife, Zvjezdana; son, Tommy, 8; daughter, Ana, 7; and Randy.

Larsen has seen his share of unpleasant moods. He worked his way through college at Loras by driving a hearse for a local funeral home. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1976 and then spent a year working at a Chicago residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents who were wards of the state.

After earning a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, he worked for a program that provided crisis intervention assistance to police officers responding to calls in several suburbs around Pittsburgh.

Larsen then pursued doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, planning initially to specialize in social ecology. By chance, he began working with Ed Diener, Ph.D., a prominent social psychologist, then shifting his interests to the study of personality.

Diener had taken a yearlong sabbatical to the Virgin Islands and came back intellectually reinvigorated, with an interest in what makes people happy. Diener began a series of landmark studies on happiness, or, as it’s known in the profession, “subjective well-being.” Larsen was happy to tag along and, in the process, developed his own reputation as a promising young researcher on human emotions.

Last year, Larsen received a large National Institute on Aging grant for a five-year study of emotions in the elderly, which offers a nice connection between his interests and the strong 50-year emphasis on aging research within the psychology department and across campus.

Larsen’s research explores how emotions interact with cognition to change the way we think. His research has shown that emotional stimuli, such as threats and fear, tend to capture our attention and hold it longer than other stimuli, which makes sense, he says, in terms of survival value.

His study will explore whether this phenomenon allows older adults to stay attentive to emotional stimuli even as they age.

“We may be hard-wired to pay more attention to things that spark our emotions,” he says.

Larsen also recently obtained a training grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences designed to encourage interdisciplinary graduate student training and interaction between psychology, neuroscience and genetics.

“There’s some really exciting research being done now at the intersection of these three fields,” Larsen says. “Our psychology department is well positioned to ride that wave because of our close working relationships with many units around campus involved in neuroscience and genetics research.”

Enthusiastic teacher

Larsen says he prefers teaching to serving as an administrator and considers his current stint as departmental chair to be an “occupational hazard,” something that some professors are called upon to do sooner or later.

He cut back on teaching during his first year as chair but is now managing to spend more time in the classroom. He’s teaching another undergraduate course this semester, “Psychology of Personality,” which uses a textbook that he wrote — one that has been translated into several foreign languages and widely adopted at universities around the globe.

Larsen also teaches a graduate course on research ethics for behavioral science, which explores integrity issues in science, such as respecting the rights of research participants and the accurate reporting of scientific findings.

His freshman course on the psychology of college students, which his students now refer to as the “psych of me” class, is co-taught with Jill Stratton, associate dean of students and director of residential academic programs, and two advanced graduate students.

“Working closely with Randy has revealed his commitment to creativity in the classroom and his dedication to student learning,” Stratton says. “He goes above and beyond in the classroom to engage students with innovative, cutting-edge research and scholarship. First-year students are especially fortunate to have the chance to learn from an international leader in the field of positive psychology.”

Larsen and Stratton hope their course will help students explore what makes them tick as individuals and how to harness that knowledge to develop a plan for success in college and beyond. As part of that process, they’re putting students through a battery of innovative personality assessment testing tools, such as measures of life satisfaction and happiness, then helping them understand how the results can be used to modify their approach to school and life.

Randy J. Larsen

Hometown: Born in Lake City, Iowa; grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Education: B.A., psychology, 1976, Loras College; M.A., clinical psychology, 1978, Duquesne University; Ph.D., personality psychology, 1984, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Hobbies: Traveling, fishing, gardening and cooking

Books: “Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature,” with D.M. Buss, 3rd edition (McGraw-Hill 2007); “The Science of Subjective Well-Being” (Guilford 2007); “History of the Psychology Department at Washington University: 1924-2006” (Washington University 2006)

Larsen knows that college years can be a time of indecision and big shifts in career plans. He started college thinking he might become a veterinarian but changed majors after a great professor got him interested in psychology.

“If you’re interested in buildings, you study architecture. If you’re interested in stars, you study astronomy,” he says. “I realized I was very interested in people, so I studied psychology.”

Outside the classroom

Larsen says some of his greatest lessons in understanding people have come through experiences outside the classroom, especially the year he spent as a clinical psychologist riding along with police officers responding to domestic violence calls, stand-offs and other altercations.

“My year spent responding to police emergencies actually prepared me well to be a department chair,” Larsen says. “On many of those police calls, my job was to assess a volatile situation, help people think through their options and manage their emotions, and guide them to a realistic course of action.

“Those are part of the same skill set that I use everyday as chair,” he says. “I spend a portion of my time helping faculty, staff or students solve problems, many times when they are under some sort of pressure or emotional stress.”

Larsen is quick to assert that he has been blessed in assuming the reins of an extremely well-functioning department, one that has been set up in an organized way, is filled with productive and collaborative colleagues and is successful in the missions of teaching, research and contributions to the University.

“I would have been a fool to say no when they asked me to be chair,” he says. “I came in at an ideal time. We have a remarkably collaborative team of interesting people here who are all working together, all rowing in the same direction. I inherited a great department, so my main objective is keep the momentum moving forward.”