Research Spotlight: Dr. Joseph Hayes

Research Spotlight aims to shed light on the diverse research culture of Acadia University by celebrating the work and interests of our researchers. Each profile features six questions: five about research, one just for fun. Learn about what’s happening across campus and get to know the faces you see every day.


Dr. Joseph Hayes

Department of Psychology

Faculty of Science

In terms of research, what are you working on right now? 

I’m currently working on a number of projects, but most lately I’ve been focused on studies of motivational conflict. Sometimes we want something really badly, but we also feel doubtful of our ability to get it. Take a student who hopes to get into medical school for example. They might really want to become a doctor, but bumps along the road can often lead to doubts. Plus, given the amount of time and effort that it takes to become a doctor, they might feel like they are simply wasting their time and that they would be better off doing something else.

These situations are characterized by motivational conflict because the person is torn between the push to continue pursuing the goal, and the pull to give up for fear of wasting one’s time. Naturally, motivational conflict is accompanied by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, which people are often highly motivated to avoid, or at least to get rid of as quickly as possible.

Some of my most recent studies involve the goal to maintain a positive self-image. One way to do this is through self-affirmations (i.e., thinking about your most important values and how you regularly live up to those values). Thousands of studies have documented the psychological benefits of self-affirmation. But for people with low self-esteem, who have a relatively negative self-image, self-affirmations can increase anxiety by arousing motivational conflict. Interestingly, people with low self-esteem tend to avoid engaging self-affirmations, even though they may benefit from a boost to self-image. My recent research shows that this avoidance tendency functions to prevent anxiety for people with low self-esteem, because it prevents motivational conflict.  

This is just one example of the type of research I’m up to right now.

How does that fit with your broader research interests?

My broader research interests pertain to how people cope with adversity more generally. I’m especially interested in how our awareness of inevitable death colours the way in which we live life. I look at life and death in the same way as any other goal. Although people typically want to live for as long as possible, they also readily recognize that death is inevitable. So, the awareness of death can also trigger motivational conflict (i.e., I want to continue living, but I know that this goal will fail, and so I might as well give up). Plus, the awareness of death can render everything else that we do (yes, absolutely everything) pointless and futile. Why bother staying physically fit if I’m just going to die? Why bother to eat for that matter?

Interestingly, for people who get little enjoyment out of life, giving up on the goal to continue living can actually reduce death-related anxiety. And this makes sense when you think about it. If I’m indifferent about living, then I’m not really afraid of dying. The problem, however, is that giving up on the goal to continue living produces depression.

What most motivates you to do research?

It’s hard to know what most motivates me to do research. On the one hand, I find learning about new things intrinsically enjoyable. Delving into the unknown and discovering the contours of reality is inherently rewarding for me. But I also recognize that my research is my vehicle for death-transcendence. My publications will exist long after I’m dead. So, in a way, doing research is my way of ensuring that I will continue to exist (at least symbolically) long into the future. In essence, this gives my life meaning and makes it appear worthy of living despite the fact that it will eventually end. I suppose this is what most motivates me.

What tips do you give students when they embark on a new research project?

I always tell my students to keep two key things in mind when conducting any research project.

Keep it simple—Don’t do a giant study with 56 conditions that attempt to control or manipulate everything that has ever been known to affect an outcome. Simple studies with 2 to 4 experimental conditions are often best. If possible, try to design a simple study. These are more likely to work out the way you plan.

Think about exactly what you expect the data to look like—This is usually a good exercise for pinpointing precisely where you expect effects. The 56 condition studies that students sometimes come up with usually have about 52 conditions that are not expected to yield much difference in the dependent variable. This helps them see that those conditions are superfluous, and that the study design would benefit by cutting out the fat. It also helps them to think about exactly how the data will be analyzed (before the data are collected). There is nothing more frustrating than spending weeks or months on a research project that yields data that you can’t analyze.

Do you have any forthcoming publications, events, or talks we should look out for?

I have a few papers in the pipeline, and they’ll hopefully be published soon. One paper examines self-affirmation among people with low self-esteem (discussed above). Another paper that I’m writing with an undergraduate student (Candice Hubley) examines the effect of affirming the will to live among people who are depressed. Much like the self-esteem study, we predicted and found that depressed people become more anxious when affirming life (i.e., thinking about reasons for living). As a consequence, they often resist therapeutic efforts aimed at reducing depression in order to prevent themselves from regaining a desire for life. On a motivational level, this resistance functions to prevent motivational conflict and therefore pre-empt feelings of anxiety. Unfortunately, however, it also leads their depression to become entrenched.

Tell me, what are you reading, watching, or listening to for fun these days?

I enjoy interacting with my 1-year-old (soon to be 2-year-old) daughter, which pretty much takes up any time that I’m not spending at work. She loves books, so I will often read her her favourites. She also loves mega blocks, balls, toy race cars, and anything to do with construction (e.g., dump trucks), so we play pretty much whatever she tells me to play.

Contact Dr. Joseph Hayes
Office: Horton Hall 304
Phone: (902) 585-1418

Research Spotlight is an initiative of the Research & Graduate Studies office. If you would like to suggest someone to be featured in this series, or if you would like to be featured yourself, please contact Deborah Hemming, Research & Innovation Coordinator:

You can also download the form below, fill in your responses, and return it to Deborah by email.


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