Cogbites Interview Series: Ava Ma de Sousa

Welcome back to our cogbites interview series, where we interview cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.

As a reminder, you can learn a little about our team of contributors by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but this is a chance to get to know some early-career scientists even better. Our first interview was with Dr. Annie Ditta, a cogbites’ contributor and professor at UC Riverside.

This week we interview another one of cogbites’ own contributors, Ava Ma de Sousa. Ava is currently a second year Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam, where she works with Dr. David Amodio. Her research focuses on social neuroscience, or how the mind mediates social processes and behavior.

Ava Ma de Sousa

Ava recently accepted a position at UC Santa Barbara. Starting in September, she’ll be working toward her PhD in Social Psychology under the mentorship of Dr. Kyle Ratner. Congratulations, Ava!

Ava has been on the cogbites team for about a year. Just last week, her “cogbite” summarized research by Dr. Hongbo Yu and colleagues on peer influence in moral decision-making. Ava’s first post (on the modularity debate) was also featured on the Cognitive Science Society’s blog. You can view all the posts she’s written for cogbites here. Learn about Ava’s important research on intergroup relations and social identity, how she started a podcast with her friend, and more in this week’s interview:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science? 

Ava: The first cognitive science courses that I took were more philosophical than empirical. I liked the idea of thinking about different types of minds – human, animal, or artificial. Though I ultimately am most interested in human psychology, being in cognitive science introduced me to different approaches, like neuroscience and computational modelling.

What are you currently working on?
Ava: For my Master’s thesis, I’m investigating the effect of dehumanizing language on incremental social learning. Though dehumanization is often thought of as a by-product of prejudice, my thesis examines how prejudice can be learned through interactions with dehumanized others. To examine the mechanisms of any biased learning of dehumanized groups, I’ll be fitting a reinforcement learning model to the data. I also aim to look at whether this translates into the most notorious outcome of dehumanization: promotion of harm to the dehumanized group.

I find dehumanization fascinating because it is not always negative per se. For instance, a benevolent sexist might refer to a woman a ‘doll’, or Asian Americans might be referred to as super competent machines. Though these dehumanizing labels are often not meant to be negative, they can have extremely negative outcomes. Past work in our lab has shown that exposure to a negative stereotype affects how we learn about members of the stereotyped group, leading to internalized group preferences. Based on this work, I am interested to see whether neutrally valanced but dehumanizing language affects the way we learn from individuals from these groups, effectively turning dehumanization into prejudice.

Ava hosting the “Minds Matter” podcast.

What’s the most exciting concept in cognitive science?

Ava: I think computational modelling in general is an incredibly exciting avenue for psychologists and neuroscientists. Given the replication crisis in behavioral science, I think cognitive models are very promising. Mathematically formalizing our theories not only forces researchers to be clearer about their own expectations, but also allows us to generate more powerful predictions and precise interventions.

What sparked your interest in science communication?

Ava: For my undergraduate thesis, I explored the cognitive effects of long-term hormone therapy on older trans women. Many of the participants I tested told me hard it was for them to access research about their own communities and situations. This showed me the crucial importance of communicating scientific results to the general public, and particularly to the specific populations they claim to serve. Since then, science communication has been a priority for me.

Can you tell us a bit more about your ongoing science communication projects?

Ava enjoying time with a friend.

Ava: I have a psychology/neuroscience podcast with one of my best friends, Beth Fisher, called Minds Matter. It’s a relaxed podcast where we talk about research on different topics each episode, while also sharing some of our personal experiences. Some of my favorite topics that we have covered are conspiracy theories, nostalgia and mindfulness. We try to dig for all sides of the story, and often find surprising things. In our episode on mindfulness, we talked about the dark sides of meditation, like anxiety, depersonalization and even psychoses, that are rarely discussed. As someone who doesn’t meditate, this was very surprising to me!

I’m also a member of my Master’s student union, Cognito. We typically organize academic events like symposia and talks, but this year, our team has been working on issues that are very near to my heart: producing a six-part series on diversity in science, focused on the Dutch context. Some sessions focus on the broader context in the Netherlands, like the structure of the Dutch education system. Others concern decision-making as (behavioral) scientists, like being conscious of (a lack of) diversity in the samples we test. In our final session, we will discuss concrete changes that can be lobbied for. If you are interested, please feel free to join us!

Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

Ava: My favorite thing to do is spend time with friends and family. I do love trying new foods, drinks, and board games, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!

You can follow Ava on Twitter or send her an email here.