As Shelley E. Taylor’s positive illusions theory goes, even unrealistic beliefs can keep us mentally fit. In her own career, she has shown that one’s illusions needn’t be beyond reach.
Taylor, this year’s winner of APA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, was among the earliest researchers to show how cognitive traits and attitudes, such as optimism, can offer resilience in the face of adversity or illness. Along the way, she has helped to establish the fields of social cognition, social neuroscience and health psychology.
Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a prolific, brilliant and original social psychologist, her colleagues say. “She doesn’t do normal science or follow the pack,” says Susan T. Fiske, PhD, of Princeton University, a former student. “She does the unexpected, and it becomes the next big thing.”
One such accomplishment is her “tend-and-befriend” account of women’s social response to stress, an alternative to the “fight-or-flight” theory: Women often nurture others or seek social support when they are under stress, rather than flee or lash out.
Taylor’s pioneering work in health psychology stemmed from an invitation in the 1970s from a fellow researcher to find out what social psychology had to say about helping breast cancer patients. “There was literally nothing there,” recalls Taylor, who went on to research that topic and write the first textbook on health psychology.
After she found links between mental well-being and health, she explored the biological pathways of those connections. Taylor’s latest research concerns genes that change their expression depending on the nurturance or stressfulness of the environment.
Among her many scientific awards and achievements, Taylor was elected to the National Academy of Sciences last year. Colleagues say she’s also a master of work-life balance. Taylor has raised two children and is an avid traveler, gardener and art collector. “She is not only talented, she has time for other things because she works smart,” says Fiske.