UCLA psychology professor honored at White House for research on marriage

Shelly Gable, a UCLA associate professor of social psychology who studies marriage and other close relationships, was honored by President George W. Bush July 26 with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This presidential award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers early in their research careers.

Gable, who gave birth to her first child in May, said, "I am thrilled. It's not the best thing that's happened to me this year, but it's definitely up there." Gable's husband is UCLA physics professor Chetan Nayak.

Gable is interested in how people interpret ambiguous social information, such as casual comments; how people weigh incentives and threats in their relationships and regulate their behavior to maximize positive outcomes and minimize threats; and how threats and incentives contribute to health and well-being, as well as loneliness. She also studies how people interpret faces quickly. Her research, federally funded by the National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/) includes studying dating and married couples in conversation in their daily lives and in videotaped laboratory studies.

"The motivation to form and maintain social ties begins in the first days of infancy," Gable said. "People who have strong social bonds tend to live longer, be happier and thrive more economically. Social isolation has the same risk factor for mortality as heavy smoking, for both men and women. My research looks at how people manage both the incentives and avoid the threats. Each relationship brings its own set of promises and challenges."

Gable has found that people who try to avoid rejection end up being more lonely and less satisfied with their social lives.

"Being hyper-vigilant to threat is not an effective long-term strategy," she said. "My new research is showing that fear of rejection and anxiety about relationships can actually bring about the very things that people fear. We found that people who want to avoid conflict with their partners tend to have more conflict with their partners. You can produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you get what you fear the most. People who are more focused on the positive incentives of relationships and who are more willing to take risks tend to be less lonely, more satisfied with their social life and have more positive emotions around their relationships."

Gable is interested in studying how people decide whether to stay in a relationship or go.

"It's both a blessing and a burden to do relationships research," she said. "Your own relationship and those of the people around you give you ideas that you can test scientifically, but you also have to turn it off a little bit. You can't think about it constantly.

"I never give advice to people," she said. "Relationships are wonderful to study, but very complex."

Gable was nominated for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by the National Science Foundation. The award recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of knowledge.

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About UCLA

California's largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university's health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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