Here is a selection of our ongoing projects.  


Changing MemoriesSelf-Control Prejudice



How do we change our memories?


Our memories of a person are the basis for our judgments and feelings about them. We might want to change our memories for many reasons. Usually the more we learn about people, the more we need to adjust (slightly or sometimes dramatically) our initial impressions of them.

After all, our first impressions can sometimes be based on irrelevant or biased information. Maybe a co-worker we initially regarded as selfish turns out to be kind and generous. Or a politician who seemed to have an honest face is actually deceptive. Or, perhaps someone we judged as immoral has been proven innocent of any wrongdoing.

When and how can we change these kinds of memories and, in turn, our impressions and judgments of others?

This question is especially important when talking about our implicit memories.  Implicit memories about people are those that are activated spontaneously and rapidly in our memory whenever we see those people, and may shape and influence our behavior toward them. 

Most research suggests that implicit memories can be especially hard to update. For example, if we form initial negative memories about someone, even if we say we have changed our mind about them after learning something positive, our implicit memories may remain negative.

Our lab has been studying the ways in which we can effectively change our implicit memories of others. We have shown that in certain kinds of circumstances, people can change their implicit memories in a lasting and robust way.

Some of our work is about how we change our memories of other people, based on their faces and also their behavior. We also examine how people form and update their implicit memories about school, artwork, wrongdoing, fitness, and robots.

Our current collaborators on this work include Professor Jeremy Cone (Williams College), post-doc Tom Mann (Harvard University), grad students Xi Shen (Cornell University), Jesse Walker (Cornell University), Vivian Rotenstein (Cornell University), Josh Katz (University of Illinois), Lily Ellis (Cornell), Professor Jack Goncalo (University of Illinois), Professor Ross Knepper (Cornell University), grad student Minae Kwon (Stanford University), and Professor Julie Shah (MIT).

Cone, J., Mann, T. C., & Ferguson, M. J. (2017). Can we change our implicit minds?  New evidence for how, when, and why implicit impressions can be rapidly revised.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 56, pp. 131-199). Academic Press.  pdf

Mann, T., & Ferguson, M. J.  (2017).  Reversing implicit first impressions through reinterpretation after a two-day delay.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychologypdf

Ferguson, M. J. (2016, April 13).  Is it too late for Trump and Clinton to become more likable?  Scientific American, The Conversation, Newsweek (and other outlets).

Cone, J., & Ferguson, M. J. (2015).  He Did What? The role of diagnosticity in revising implicit evaluations.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 37-57. pdf

Mann, T., & Ferguson, M. J.  (2015).  Can we undo our first impressions?  The role of reinterpretation in reversing implicit evaluations.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 823-849.  pdf  interactive figures

Mann, T., Cone, J., & Ferguson, M. J.  (2015). Social-psychological evidence for the effective updating of implicit attitudes.  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 32-33.  pdf


How do we control our behavior?


When and how do we stick more closely to our long-term goals (e.g., health, financial, social) rather than succumb to short-term temptations?  Our research identifies crucial psychological factors that often go undetected when we merely introspect on what explains our own or others’ behaviors.  Namely, we study the cognitive processes that unfold unintentionally and sometimes non-consciously, and have uncovered variables that are significantly predictive of people’s abilities to control their behavior. 

We examine people’s implicit positivity toward their long-term goals and their implicit beliefs about the importance of the actions needed to achieve their long-term goals. These variables predict whether someone will persist at studying and succeed at school. Or get up early and go to the gym at the crack of dawn.

We also examine the spatial and temporal cognitive dynamics of decision-making in self-control choices. When we reach for the apple rather than the cookie after dinner, how much does our arm movement veer toward that cookie? Does this subtle, implicit physical movement reflect our ability to resist those temptations? Even though we may end up grabbing that apple, our findings show that the degree to which we veer toward the cookie on the way to the apple predicts our overall average success in self-control. Using a paradigm called “mouse-tracking”, we have identified this kind of spatial conflict as a unique predictor of self-control.

We have studied people’s self-control in the areas of financial decision-making, schoolwork, standardized testing performance, exercise and fitness, and prejudice.

Our current collaborators on this work include Professor Clayton Critcher (University of California at Berkeley), Professor Ran Hassin (The Hebrew University), Professor Neil Lewis (Cornell University), post-doc Tom Mann (Harvard University), post-doc Paul Stillman (Yale University), post-doc David Melnikoff (Northeastern University), and grad student Xi Shen (Cornell University).

Stillman, P., Shen, X., & Ferguson, M. J. (in press).  How Mouse-tracking Can Advance Social Cognitive Theory.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Stillman, P., & Ferguson, M. J. (in press).  Decisional Conflict Predicts Impatience.  Journal for the Association of Consumer Research.

Stillman, P., Medvedev, D., & Ferguson, M. J. (2017). Resisting temptation: Tracking how self-control conflicts are successfully resolved in real time.  Psychological Science, 28(9), 1240-1258.

Stillman, P., & Ferguson, M. J. (2017, August 21).  Devil versus angel: when do they shift into action in the face of temptation? The Conversation, The Chicago Tribune, and other outlets.

Critcher, C., & Ferguson, M. J. (2016). “Whether I like it or not, it’s important”: Implicit importance of means predicts self-regulatory persistence and success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. pdf

Ferguson, M. J., & Critcher, C. (2016, October 27).  How To Tell if Someone Will Succeed. Time Magazine (and other outlets).  

Ferguson, M. J., & Wojnowicz, M. (2011).  The when and how of evaluative readiness: A social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Compass, 5, 1018-1038.  pdf

Wojnowicz, M., Ferguson, M. J, Dale, R., & Spivey, M. (2009).  The self-organization of deliberate evaluations.  Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435.  pdf

Ferguson, M. J. (2008).  On becoming ready to pursue a goal you don’t know you have: Effects of nonconscious goals on evaluative readiness.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1268-1294. pdf

Ferguson, M. J. (2007).  On the automatic evaluation of end-states.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 596-611.  pdf


When and how do we express prejudice?





People can express prejudice toward others in blatant as well as subtle ways. We examine both types in different settings.

For subtle biases, we have found that when discussing female versus male professionals, we are significantly more likely to use the person's full name rather than last name only. We have found evidence for this effect across political, science, and academic domains. What does this new evidence of this kind of gender bias mean? When people hear a professional described by only the surname (versus full name), we show that people assume that professional is more eminent and famous, which can then lead to judgments of greater quality. We also showed that scientists referred to by last name (versus full name) are significantly more likely to be seen as deserving of a National Science Foundation career award.

Can prejudice emerge in our hand movements? We have shown that white people display implicit bias toward black people in a mousetracking paradigm. We are further testing this novel way to measure prejudice, and have shown that the bias measured with mousetracking significantly predicts discriminatory behavior and decision-making.

We are also tracking how norms about prejudice have changed in recent years. In an ongoing project, we have shown that some segments of the American citizenry have increased significantly in their willingness to express blatant prejudice toward a number of minority groups, including Muslims, Black people, and immigrants.  We are examining when, why, and how these types of behaviors are emerging.


Our current collaborators on this work include post-doc Stav Atir (University of Chicago), grad student Ben Ruisch (Cornell University), Professor Neil Lewis (Cornell University), post-doc Tom Mann (Harvard University), post-doc Paul Stillman (Yale University), post-doc David Melnikoff (Northeastern University), and grad student Xi Shen (Cornell University).


Atir, S., & Ferguson, M. J. (2018). How Gender Determines the Way We Speak About Professionals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  pdf

Ferguson, M. J., & Porter, S. (2013).  An examination of categorization processes in organizations: The root of intergroup bias and a route to prejudice reduction. Invited chapter in Q. Robertson’s (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work (pp. 98-114).  Oxford University Press. pdf

Swim, J. K., Eyssell, K. M., Quinlivan, E., & Ferguson, M. J. (2010). Self silencing to sexism.  Journal of Social Issues, 66, 493-507. pdf

Wojnowicz, M., Ferguson, M. J, Dale, R., & Spivey, M. (2009). The self-organization of deliberate evaluations. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435.  pdf

Swim, J. K., Hyers, L. L., Cohen, L. L., & Ferguson, M. J. (2001).  Everyday sexism: Evidence for its incidence, nature, and psychological impact from three daily diary studies. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 31-53. pdf

Swim, J. K., Ferguson, M. J., & Hyers, L. L. (1999).  Avoiding stigma by association: Subtle prejudice against lesbians as a form of social distancing.  Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 61-68. pdf