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SMV Project | Meet Our Researchers – Walter Sowden

Meet Our Researchers – Walter Sowden


Dr. Walter Sowden (Center of Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research) is a research team member on the SMV-funded research project “The Virtue of Self-Distancing.” He is collaborating with Dr. Ethan Kross (University of Michigan) and Dr. Warren Herold (University of Arkansas).

WALTER SOWDEN (Ph.D., University of Michigan, 2015) is a Research Psychologist and Task Area Manager at the Center of Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. His research covers three broad topics: moral psychology and social decision-making, self-control and emotion regulation, and military member & veteran performance and wellbeing. His publications include: Character vs. competency, it must be both! (PDF) (Doty & Sowden, 2009); Automatic ethics: what we take for granted matters (PDF) (Leavitt & Sowden, 2010); Leadership in the profession of arms (PDF) (Hannah & Sowden, 2011); A force of change: The U.S. Army’s Global Assessment Tool (Lester, Harms, Herian, & Sowden, 2015); and Resilience in the Military: The double edged-sword of military culture (Adler & Sowden, forthcoming).

Two experiences spurred my interest in studying human behavior. The first was during my deployment to Iraq and the second was during my time as a Tactical Officer at the United States Military Academy (i.e., West Point). During my deployment to Iraq, I observed, on several occasions, people that I thought I knew well (including myself) drastically change with the situation. People who I believed to be cooperative and honest become selfish and deceitful, while others, who I thought were incompetent, demonstrated exceptional leadership and character in combat. This perplexed me greatly. Why were my assessments of people so off? Am I really that bad at judging character? In an attempt to come to grips with this, I stumbled onto social psychology. This discovery, set forth my desire to not only understand how the situation interacts with the individual to produce human cognition and behavior, but also motivated me to become a social psychologist.

This desire was refined a few years later while I was serving as a Tactical Officer (TAC, for short) at West Point. The role of the TAC at West Point is very unique. TACs are responsible for managing the holistic (academic, physical, military, and character) development of approximately 150 cadets as they make the transition from teenage civilian to military leader. West Point is designed not only to provide Cadets with a world-class college education, but also to develop their ability to ethically lead Soldiers on the battlefield. To effectively accomplish this latter task, the Cadets at West Point are responsible for governing themselves in accordance with the Cadet Honor Code, which states “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” As the value of integrity is being imbued into the cadets, they are also being indoctrinated into the Army’s occupational culture. The Culture of the U.S. Army is exemplified by the four sentences that make up its Warrior Ethos: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This last sentence epitomizes a valuable attribute that the Army spends a great deal of effort developing in its Soldiers: interpersonal loyalty.

On several occasions as a TAC, I observed these two values (integrity and loyalty) meet at loggerheads. A Cadet would witness another cadet, with whom they were close with (e.g., their roommate, teammate, or friend), violate the honor code. They then had to decide whether they would report the infraction or not. I watched as Cadets were psychologically ripped apart dealing with this dilemma. As their TAC, I wanted to understand, and more importantly anticipate, when these situations would arise. However, like my experience in Iraq, I quickly came to realize that my intuition about this was extremely limited. Even though I worked closely with these Cadets, I was terrible at predicting their behavior in these situations. Again, in my attempt to understand what was going on, I stumbled onto another body of academic literature: moral psychology. Not only did I find this field of research fascinating (I couldn’t get enough of it), I started to realize that some of my questions were not being addressed by the existing literature. So, I went to grad school, earned my PhD, and began doing my own research on the social psychology of morality.

The project I’m working on for the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project is an extension from the work I did for my dissertation at Michigan. In my dissertation, I set out to address two questions. My first question pertained to the relationship between interpersonal closeness and moral decision-making. My goal here was to get a better understanding of how closeness influences a person’s decision-making in integrity-loyalty dilemmas (what the Cadets were experiencing at West Point). For my second question, I wanted to see if moral decision-making in these dilemmas could be self-regulated. To explore this question, I tested the idea that self-distancing through third-person self-talk (referring to oneself in the third person during deliberation) would mitigate the negative effect of closeness on honesty in integrity-loyalty dilemmas.

Serendipitously, while I was working on my dissertation, Warren Herold (at that time a PhD student in the philosophy department), came to our lab (The Emotion and Self-Control Lab), to give a talk about his research on Adam Smith’s theory about self-distancing and morality. After his talk, Warren and I talked about possibly doing a project together testing Smith’s general idea that self-distancing enhanced altruism. After hearing about the Self, Motivation, and Virtue project’s call for proposals, Warren and I pitched our idea to Dr. Ethan Kross (my PhD advisor and Director of the Emotion and Self-Control Lab). Ethan liked the idea and thus, the Virtue of Self-Distancing Project was born.

The Virtue of Self-Distancing project brings together not only two of my own personal research interests: morality and self-control, but also two streams of research that are just beginning to cross-over in the social psychological literature (see Sheldon & Fishbach, 2015). The beauty of the self-distancing manipulation that Ethan and his colleagues have developed (third person self-talk; Kross et al., 2014) is that it not only highlights an important, yet under explored, psychological mechanism – self-reference – in moral cognition and social decision-making, but it also equips people with an easy to implement, self-administered intervention device to be strategically used in moral and social dilemmas.  Our project not only introduces self-distancing to the moral judgment and social decision-making literature, it aims to show under what circumstances the adoption of a self-distanced perspective leads to enhanced prosociality and when it does not. Moreover, we believe that this research could lead to practical applications that help people understand how distancing from the self can be strategically adaptive for some people in certain situations and conversely when self-immersion is more likely to lead to adaptive reasoning and behavior. I believe that ultimately this research has the potential to help people understand how and when to adopt a self-distanced perspective (and when to be self-immersed) in order to achieve their goals, particularly those around living the good life.