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Meet Joshua Brown, postdoctoral research associate

Joshua Brown at Nancy Nicholas Hall

Joshua Brown is a postdoctoral research associate in Human Development & Family Studies at the School of Human Ecology. The position is funded through an initial Research Support for Mid-Career/Senior Faculty mechanism awarded to Lauren Papp as part of the School of Human Ecology Research & Grant Investment Initiative, launched by Dean Soyeon Shim in 2019 to help provide research support to faculty and expand the impact of scholarship.

Brown came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in August 2022 after earning a PhD in experimental psychology from Texas Tech University. Brown’s appointment lasts until August 2024.

A social psychologist by training, Joshua Brown studies why people identify with groups, how these identifications can affect individuals’ behavior and health, and what happens when groups come into conflict with one another.

Using statistical training he obtained while at Texas Tech, Brown is helping analyze a large dataset collected by Lauren Papp over the past five years in hopes of better understanding how students’ identification with groups affects their health and well-being. He says he’s excited to do applied research that is collaborative and community-focused.

Postdocs are able to focus entirely on research projects and gaining new methodological training without the coursework, teaching appointments and other responsibilities graduate students and professors have, Brown says.

In this Q&A, Brown discusses how science fiction got him interested in psychology, the universality of uncertainty, and why he thinks social psychologists’ hands-off approach to extremism may be doing the public a disservice.

How did you become interested in this area of study?

This might be a stereotypical answer for a lot of psychologists my age, but I was inspired by Inception, the Christopher Nolan movie.

I got excited about the idea of dreams and sleep and “Whoa, we’re digging into the mind.” That movie came out when I was in junior high and I ended up reading a lot of books about sleep and dreaming and things like that.

Of course, I realized the movie wasn’t accurate. But it opened up my mind to how psychologists, neuroscientists and behavioral researchers study things and the complex ideas they examine. I got inspired and ended up doing a lot of my school reports on weird psychology stuff.

I originally was a theater major in college. As I continued diving into acting techniques and acting theory, it kept coinciding with psychological research.

A man and woman wearing warm-weather hiking clothes pose together in front of a canyon and cliffs.
Joshua Brown and his wife, Aziza Abdieva, pose for a photo at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

So, as an actor, I felt like I was an applied psychologist: I was using psychological theories to inform my acting, and I eventually got more excited about theories than acting. I swapped my major to psychology and worked with great mentors that encouraged me and supported my research.

What’s an interesting fact you’ve learned or is something you wish more people knew about?

A lot of my research at Texas Tech was focused on self uncertainty and why we identify with groups, because there has to be a motivation. I don’t walk down the street and suddenly sign up for a cult or something – people don’t join terrorist organizations just out of the blue because it sounds interesting. There has to be something that’s motivating us forward, and something that was identified is self uncertainty.

When we feel uncertain about ourselves, we’re motivated to identify with a group because that group provides us with a sense of certainty. That self uncertainty motivates us to connect with other people.

We think about the most extreme religious cults: they typically tell you not only who you are, but where you came from and where you’re going, sometimes even after death. They give you a really strict, rigid hierarchy to be part of, and so you have maybe your religious leaders who you always defer to, and anything they say is what you do. It makes everything black and white for you.

What I find most stunning is that this motivator is working within all of us and within every group. So, whether it’s a religious cult or a terrorist organization on the extreme antisocial end, or a charity group or political party, this principle of self uncertainty typically drives us to identify.

In my field, we’re trying to figure out how to shuttle people away from antisocial groups and give them something more prosocial to identify with, which can help to alleviate their self uncertainty, but also give them worthwhile and meaningful causes to contribute to.

What has surprised you working in this field?

When I first started my PhD, I had the mindset that there are good groups and there are bad groups, so we need to identify the bad groups and figure out how they’re brainwashing people and getting people into them, and we’ve got to stop it. And my PhD advisor was firm in telling me I was thinking about it in too complex a way.

He explained that we are examining the basic processes that push for identification and this is universal. It applies to every group. It’s not saying that there’s a good group or a bad group – all of these groups are using the same things to varying degrees. It’s important to study this so we can use the same tactics for prosocial groups.

So, my PhD advisor got the “good versus bad” out of my mind, and I don’t use those terms anymore. That’s why I use prosocial and antisocial, because at the end of the day, it just depends on the perspective.

A man and a woman stand in an empty plaza in front of a tall statue of a person on horseback and a red flag on a tall flagpole.
Joshua Brown and his wife, Aziza Abdieva, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

I’ve also learned how universal anxiety and uncertainty is. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, we all experience anxiety, which is typically triggered by an extreme awareness of uncertainty. I now just treat everyone as if they’re dealing with a certain amount of uncertainty. I recognize within myself how hard that is for me to deal with uncertainty, so it’s allowed me to be a lot more empathetic to my students, to the people I encounter.

What do you see as the most critical question facing your field?

For folks in my field, especially social psychologists, a lot of our research tends to center around social issues while being very hands off. I’ve published papers on political ideological extremism among Democrats and Republicans, but my advisor at the time and I were very, very careful to not condemn one side or the other, nor to make specific suggestions on how to tone down that extremism, and we weren’t comfortable saying what the end results of extremism could be.

So even though there might be examples of ideological extremism causing problems in the United States, like the January 6th riots, both editors and scientific journals recommended we be really careful. The idea is that we don’t want to suggest to lawmakers or administrators that they need to use these techniques.

I think that hands-off attitude does a disservice to the public, because our field is kind of split between the social psychologists who study these things, and media and mass communicators who use those same techniques in a hands-on, intentional way.

To me, something my field will have to reckon with is, if people are already going to use this for potentially antisocial purposes – recruitment, propaganda, manipulation – why are we not sounding the alarm and why are we not trying to get into the fray as well?

We probably are going to have to step in and, at the very least, be in communication with policymakers to either prevent manipulative use of these techniques, or to use them for prosocial outcomes. We’re going to have to figure out how to talk to both policymakers and the general public about these issues.

A man dressed in black and a woman dressed in red stand in front of large red letters that say "Stress Flesh" and a long white table containing silicone cubes meant to mimic human flesh.
Joshua Brown and Aziza Abdieva pose with their “Stress Flesh” exhibit at the Texas Tech School of Art’s Satellite Gallery in Lubbock, Texas, in 2022.

That’s why I’m glad to be at the School of Human Ecology in a community-minded, interdisciplinary environment. My presentations have improved because I’ve received feedback from designers here about how to present my results more effectively.

Anything else the School of Human Ecology community should know about you?

My wife, Aziza Abdieva, is an artist and has her MFA from Texas Tech. We developed a project called Stress Flesh that focuses on scientific communication in non-traditional ways. The exhibit is featured right now at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. We’re presenting our West Texas results, but our goal is to extend that to Madison as well and have a Madisonian representation.

I’m a big proponent of getting out of the traditional ways of distributing scientific information – I don’t think scientists should only publish journals and book chapters and poster presentations. I think a lot of our failings as scientists come from our inability to communicate effectively with the public, so I’m really excited to be part of a department in a school that cares so much about that.

What do you like to do for fun?

I love all outdoorsy things: biking, camping, hiking. I grew up in Utah a 15 minute walk away from beautiful mountains, so I got to do all of this in the Wasatch Mountains as a kid.

I also love cooking and trying new recipes. My wife is from Kyrgyzstan, which is in Central Asia, so the food is influenced by places like Soviet Russia and Turkey. Because of that, it’s been fun experimenting and trying out new recipes, trying out flavor combinations I never would have thought of before.