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Professor W. Gerrod Parrott Investigates the Science of Emotion

Professor Parrott teaches in the psychology department at Georgetown. (Photo: Claire Callagy)

By Kara Burritt
Since the self-help craze swept the 1970s, it has become more socially acceptable to speak openly about one’s emotions. Psychology professor and scholar W. Gerrod Parrott has built a career on this recent movement and offers a simple explanation for the explosion of research in his area of interest: “Emotions are everywhere.”
Incredibly complex yet very broadly defined, the field of emotion research covers a lot of ground, which affords researchers a multitude of topics to study. Parrott is proof of this. He has published works on subjects ranging from the role emotions play in culture and society to the various aspects comprising emotions themselves. He has considered cultural versus biological factors of emotion; emotion’s place in law; traits of individual emotions; and emotion as a functional and dysfunctional force. While Parrott’s personal interests have led him to a broad range of research, he notes that the study of emotions is more fragmented than his work implies.
With so many different fields enmeshed in emotion studies—psychology, biology, sociology—key theories that emerge often lack relevant research cohesion. Also challenging is the fact that emotions themselves are wrought with multiple facets and factors, making them a rich, but expansive, research topic. To study a single emotion involves understanding the related physical effects, cognitive activity, and social conditioning.
Parrott brings a unique perspective to the field by recognizing that there are aspects of emotions that are often dealt with separately but can only be understood collectively. “A lot of the different bits and pieces of what we know about emotions are scattered,” he says. “Intellectual synthesis is necessary.” His forthcoming book, titled Emotion: An Introduction, that aims to synthesize for the first time what is already known about emotions and emotion research in order to yield a general survey of the field. This book will pull from individual theories to establish an overarching theme of emotion research.
In writing this book it was particularly important to Parrott to make the material accessible to students trying to grasp the field of emotion research. Parrott was, in fact, approached to author the book because of his flair for making complex topics easier to understand.
It was at an emotion conference that an editor from Cambridge University Press proposed this book idea to him. She had been impressed by Parrott’s talk about shame versus guilt, in which he used examples from Spiderman comics to illustrate the differences. She determined his ability to explain clearly a rather complicated subject would suit this book project. “You might say that bridging the gap between academic theory and everyday life is one of my interests,” says Parrott.
Making emotion studies relevant to daily life is one technique that keeps Parrott’s teaching fresh. Since coming to Georgetown in 1987, Parrott has become a familiar face in the undergraduate psychology offices. He remains committed to infusing topical material into the program by weaving the arts, culture, and students’ personal experiences into his teaching. Currently he is teaching two courses, Social Psychology and Contemporary Research on Emotion.
For the past seven years, Parrott has also served as the co-director of the undergraduate psychology program, which allows him to regularly re-evaluate Georgetown’s offerings in the psychology department. Recently, he worked with co-director Professor David Crystal to survey senior psychology majors on their experiences in the program. Such feedback helps determine the academic quality of the department while at the same time recognizing issues students would like resolved in the future.
In addition to Parrott’s commitment to Georgetown’s undergraduate psychology program, he was recently elected to a four-year term as president of the International Society for Research on Emotion. A longtime member of the organization, Parrott notes that the group’s interdisciplinary and international approach to emotion research is aligned with his own research goals.
Given Parrott’s wide-ranging interests in the ever-changing field of emotion research, he hopes his book-in-progress will be one resource to help bridge those gaps. While the extensive research Parrott has done thus far in his career is important in its own right, the book he is penning is poised to shift the field of emotion studies from a widely disjointed discipline to a more unified one.
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