The Motivation and Cognitive Science Laboratory is dedicated to understanding how what people want (motivation) and how they think (cognition) interact to shape prediction, evaluation, and behavior. Research ongoing in the lab has pursued five overlapping research questions:

  • Prospection: How do people think about objects and events that are removed from the immediate here and now?
  • Self-Control: When and why do some people succeed whereas others fail at self-control?
  • Psychology of Change: How do we motivate change at the level of individuals, groups, and social institutions?
  • Metamotivational Beliefs: Are people’s beliefs about motivation accurate, and what are the consequences of this accuracy/inaccuracy?
  • Enhancing Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion: How can we leverage motivation science to reduce disparities and promote social equality and representation?


When we think about an object that is in our immediate environment, we can use our senses to provide information about that object. But we also have the capacity to think about, evaluate, and orient ourselves to objects and events that occur beyond our immediate senses (i.e., those that are psychologically distant). For example, people appear equally adept at thinking about events that will occur later today (psychologically near) vs. a year from now (psychologically distant). What we are interested in how people are able to engage in this sort of prospection, an ability that some have suggested in a uniquely human capacity (Suddendorf & Corvallis, 2008).

The guiding theoretical framework in our lab to understand this issue is construal level theory (CLT; Liberman & Trope, 2008; Liberman et al., 2007; Trope & Liberman, 2003; 2010). Given that we often lack reliable information on the detailed specifics of more distant events, we rely on more abstract, categorical knowledge that captures the gist or essence of those events. In CLT terms, we refer to this process as high-level construal. As events become closer, we are able to attend to and incorporate secondary details that distinguish those particular events as unique and idiosyncratic. We refer to this latter process as low-level construal. Whereas we might think of a beach vacation in the distant future as relaxing under the warmth of the sun, we are more likely to think of a beach vacation tomorrow as sitting in this chair in that particular spot wearing these clothes. High-level construal allows us to transcend the present to consider remote content, whereas low-level construal immerses us into the particulars of the here-and-now.

Research in the lab examines how people use high-level and low-level construal to consider psychologically distant vs. near events, and the implications of such construal processes for motivation, prediction, evaluation, decision, and behavior.  More information about CLT can also be found here.

Representative Publications:

  • Lee, H., Fujita, K., Deng, X., & Unnava, H. R. (2017). The role of temporal distance on the color of future-directed imagery: A construal-level perspective. Journal of Consumer Research43(5), 707-725.
  • Stillman, P. E., Lee, H., Deng, X., Unnava, R., Cunningham, W. A., & Fujita, K. (2017). Neurological evidence for the role of construal level in future-directed thought. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience12(6), 937-947.
  • Trope, Y., Ledgerwood, A., Liberman, N. & Fujita, K. (2021).  Regulatory scope and its mental and social supports.  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(2), 204-221.


Self-control dilemmas occur when people are tempted by immediate rewards that threaten broader, global goals (e.g., Ainslie, 1975; Fujita, 2011; Mischel et al., 1989; Rachlin, 2000). A dieter, for example, presented with cake may face a self-control conflict between the immediate hedonic enjoyment of eating cake vs. the broader rewards of losing weight. Self-control conflicts are believed to be at the heart of many of society’s most pressing problems, including obesity, substance abuse, and poor financial decision-making.

Research in the lab explore the various cognitive and motivational factors that lead people to prioritize remote over immediate rewards. Chief among these factors is construal level. Research in our lab demonstrates that engaging in high-level rather than low-level construal promotes self-control (for reviews, see Fujita, 2008; Fujita & Carnevale, 2012). More recent work in our lab has begun to examine people’s knowledge and awareness that high-level construal can promote self-control, and the strategic engagement of high-level vs. low-level construal.

Representative Publications:

  • Fujita, K., Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Levin-Sagi, M. (2006). Construal levels and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 351-367.
  • Fujita, K., & Carnevale, J. J. (2012). Transcending temptation through abstraction: The role of construal level in self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 248-252.
  • MacGregor, K. E., Carnevale, J. J., Dusthimer, N. E., & Fujita, K. (2017).  Knowledge of the self-control benefits of high-level vs. low-level construal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 607-620.

For many, self-control entails the exertion of willpower – the effortful inhibition of impulses when presented with immediate temptations. Research suggests, however, that attempting to overcome temptation with willpower alone is a highly fallible strategy (e.g., Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Wegner, 2009). Inhibition is a reactive self-control strategy, engaged after a temptation impulse is already activated and must be restrained. Our lab examines other strategies people use that are more proactively engaged in anticipation of potential conflicts. For example, dieters may walk the long-way home to avoid the temptation of walking in front of their favorite bakery (e.g., Ainslie, 1975, Trope & Liberman, 2000; Thaler & Shefrin, 1981). Our lab investigates these alternative “offense” rather than “defense” strategies, and explore under what conditions they are more likely to be implemented.

Representative Publications:

  • Fujita, K., & Roberts, J. C. (2010). Promoting prospective self-control through abstraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1049-1054.
  • Fujita, K. (2011). On conceptualizing self-control as more than the effortful inhibition of impulses. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 352-366.
  • Fujita, K., Orvell, A., & Kross, E. (2020).  Smarter, not harder: A toolbox approach to enhancing self-control.  Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7(2), 149-156.

Psychology of Change

One of the most vexing issues for psychologists to understand is why people are resistant to change, even when they are aware of the problems produced by the status quo. For example, why don’t people change their health behavior (i.e., quit smoking, eat more healthily) when they know their current behavior promotes negative health outcomes? Why do groups continue to engage in actions that damage their reputations and effectiveness? Why are institutions so slow to respond to vexing problems that their policies and rules create? Our lab studies the motivational barriers to change and factors that may help overcome such resistance.

Representative Publications:

  • Johnson, I. R., & Fujita, K. (2012). Using perceptions of changeability to promote system-change motives over system-justification motives in information search. Psychological Science, 23, 133-140.
  • Packer, D. J., Fujita, K., & Herman, S. (2013). A goal conflict approach to understanding when conscientious people dissent. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 927-932.
  • Reeves, S. L., Nguyen, T., Scholer, A. A., Fujita, K., & Spencer, S. (pdf). Examining beliefs about the benefits of self-affirmation for mitigating self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Metamotivational Beliefs

At its core, self-control is a problem of regulating motivation: wanting immediate temptations less and over-riding goals more.  The mechanisms and strategies by which people monitor and modulate both the quantity and quality of their motivation states is referred to as metamotivation (Miele & Scholer, 2018; Scholer & Miele, 2016).  How successful people are in regulating their motivation depends in part on what they know and believe about the nature of motivation.  If people’s beliefs are accurate, they should be more successful in motivating themselves in the right ways and attain their goals.  If their beliefs are inaccurate, on the other hand, they should encounter more difficulty.   In our lab, we examine people’s beliefs about motivation and the consequences of these beliefs for goal-directed decisions, action, and performance.  By understanding metamotivational beliefs as a source of self-control success or failure, we hope to spur the development of new assessments with which to identify who holds erroneous beliefs and help them with personalized interventions to help correct these beliefs and promote greater success.

Representative Publications:

  • Nguyen, T., Carnevale, J. J., Scholer, A. A., Miele, D. B., & Fujita, K. (2019). Metamotivational knowledge of the role of high-level and low-level construal in goal-relevant task performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(5), 876-899.
  • Scholer, A. A., Miele, D. B., Murayama, K., & Fujita, K. (2018). New directions in self-regulation: The role of metamotivational beliefs. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(6), 437-442.
  • Nguyen, T., Scholer, A. A., Miele, D. B., Edwards, M. C., Fujita, K. (in press). Predicting academic performance with an assessment of students’ knowledge of the benefits of high-level and low-level construal. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Using Motivation Science to Enhance Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion

Society continues to grapple with the negative consequences of demographic disparities, inequalities, and social injustice.  A major goal of the lab is to leverage motivation science to begin addressing these difficult social challenges.  As an extension of our work on the psychology of change, we explore some of the motivational dynamics that impede or facilitate efforts to enhance equity, diversity, & inclusion.  Ongoing work, for example, examines who is likely to confront others for prejudicial actions and the conditions that increase/decrease the likelihood of such confrontations.  Other work, conducted in collaboration with colleagues in the Departments of Physics, Math, and Chemistry, examines motivational factors that may produce demographic performance disparities in undergraduate Intro-level STEM courses.  We also explore when and why some interventions designed to promote equity (e.g., self-affirmation, growth mindsets) succeed or fail to produce positive outcomes.

Representative Publications:

  • Reeves, S. L., Nguyen, T., Scholer, A. A., Fujita, K., & Spencer, S. (pdf). Examining beliefs about the benefits of self-affirmation for mitigating self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.