Deacon Profile: Christian Waugh

Christian Waugh, assistant professor of psychology, began working at the university in 2010 after completing his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.

Taylor Ibelli/Old Gold & Black

Taylor Ibelli/Old Gold & Black

Waugh received his undergraduate degree from William and Mary in psychology. He then went on to the University of Michigan where he received his PhD in social psychology and certificate in cognitive neuroscience. He is currently teaching PSY 338 and PSY 311.

Why did you choose to study psychology?

I was always curious about why people did what they do. Back in high school you get social, you have friends and not so friends. The whole dynamic between why people do what they do. And why do people make the decisions they do when it seems irrational at the time and very inspired at times. It always fascinated me. I’m just really interested in people as a thing of study.

When I got into college I took some psychology classes, some biology classes, some anthropology classes. My psychology classes really spoke to me because they used scientific methods to look at why people did what they did. You have to rely on your own biases and own perspective and look at it in a scientific way.

What research are you involved in?

The research that we do in the lab generally revolves around adaptive ways we use emotion. For example, how does positive emotion help us cope with stress and in what specific ways does it do it? Do we use it to distract ourselves from stress or do we use it to think about stress differently, in a more positive light?

Other sorts of things include looking at resilience. What makes some people more resilient when a stressor comes down the line or a traumatic experience comes down the line. They are able to bounce back from it.

Other people may exhibit psychopathology or depression or something like that. How do these two processes differ and how do we teach people who are less resilient to be more resilient? I also explore the ‘adaptive functioning of emotions’ in the brain using neuroimaging tools.

What is your favorite class to teach?

My favorite class to teach is definitely emotion. It is seminar style and it is typically seniors who have been around for a while and they think they know what they are doing.

They have their ideas and it is fun to go back and forth with them about what emotions are and what roles they play in life. We all have our own ideas about what emotions do and what their purpose is.

I really like to challenge them to think outside the box from a more scientific perspective about what these emotions are doing or are not doing.

One of my favorite things to do is make them think of these negative emotions, like anger and sadness, and make them think of those emotions in a positive way. They can be very adaptive and helpful, not always, but they can. It takes that kind of stepping back to a different perspective. People have opinions about emotions, so it is easy to have discussions.

Why should students take psychology?

There are a couple reasons. One is you will always have to understand what people do and why they do it for any part of your life, whether it be your work, your family, sports, anything you want to do if it is with other people.

You have to have some semblance of why they do the things they do. A lot of times we have our own ideas of why they do what they do. It takes a long time. I’ve been doing a lot of psychology research and the exposure to it made me realize that sometimes these ways are not the right ways of thinking. Sometimes you get a different perspective on people.

The second thing is by studying the science of psychology, it allows you to become a better thinker and makes you better at logically approaching situations because it requires you to override your own personal thoughts of what you think happens and why and really adapt a different perspective. You can have those perspectives when you go into a hard science, but you come with a lot of baggage when you come into psychology. It is nice in forcing you to step out of your comfort zone.

What are the qualities that you like to see in a student?

The one thing that I really like to see in students, which may not be the standard answer, is flexibility.

So being able to understand that you have strengths and weaknesses and you can flexibly adapt those strengths and weaknesses to any kind of class or even to life beyond class. If you study a certain way and the next class you take compels you to study a different way, that you are able to switch strategies and you are able to approach that class with your best foot and the best strategies you can. I think the rigidity really undermines a bunch of people.

Like it can only be this way or I am not good at this. Well you will never be good at that if you think like that.

I wasn’t a very good writer. It was very clear that classes I did better in didn’t have writing.

I knew that so it took a very conscientious thought process to get better at this one thing, especially for those classes that required it. So just be a little bit flexible and know that you can improve. Those are the main things that separate the stellar students.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the classroom?

I enjoy my kids. I have four kids so that takes up a lot of my time. I coach baseball and watch them play sports.

So that is most of my time, but besides that I like playing sports myself. I play softball, football, basketball and a little bit of soccer. I enjoy traveling and I like video games, I’ll admit it. I have my Xbox and everything.


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