“My passion for the environment/sustainability is really a basic passion for survival,” said Neil Lewis Jr., a Ph.D. candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan, “ [I want] to see the planet, and organisms on it, continue to exist and thrive. That won’t happen if we continue on our current trajectory, so I’m trying to figure out ways to help us get back on the right track.”
Before coming to Michigan and getting involved with sustainability, Lewis studied at Cornell University, majoring in Economics and Psychology. Throughout his undergraduate career, he did extensive research on the psychology of social networks.
“At Cornell, I was on a research team that studied how people mentally represent their social networks, and the consequences of those processes for a variety of outcomes,” Lewis said.
Lewis has continued doing related research at Michigan, trying to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying motivation and goal pursuit.
“My research asks two general questions,” Lewis explained. “What motivates people to pursue our goals, and how does the interplay between our identities and our surrounding environments support or undermine our goal pursuit efforts?”
Most of Lewis’ work is in education and health disparities, but he also researches and prioritizes other areas such as savings, sustainability, and intergroup relations.
“Interdisciplinary work is important to me because most of the problems I’m interested in (and most problems in general) don’t fit neatly in any one discipline,” Lewis said. “To find effective solutions requires drawing on expertise from a variety of disciplines. Because of that, I try to put myself in situations where I’m exposed to a variety of perspectives.”
After completing his Ph.D., Lewis will be returning to his alma mater, Cornell University, as an Assistant Professor of Communication and Social Behavior. Lewis plans to continue to analyze the way social psychology influences life and behavior.
“The basic tenet of social psychology is that if we want to understand thoughts and behaviors, we have to look at both individuals, and the contexts that they are in,” Lewis said. “This perspective is important in the environmental realm as well.”
In addition to his work in social psychology, Lewis is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Michigan Journal of Sustainability (MJS). He is helping oversee the peer review process for the upcoming MJS Volume 5.1, focusing on factors supporting or undermining the motivation of people and organizations to behave sustainably. He explained that especially in sustainability, there are many steps between beliefs, intention, and behavior.
“Academic friends often ask, ‘Why don’t people behave sustainably?’ The evidence is so clear that climate change is real!” And to that, I have to explain that the evidence is clear to us, but it is not clear to everyone,” Lewis said. “And even when people do share the belief, that does not always translate to behavior.”