Rachel  Severson, Ph.D.

Contact Information

  • Rachel Severson, Ph.D.
  • Skaggs 371
  • Psychology
  • 32 Campus Dr.
    Missoula, MT 59804
  • Phone: 406-243-4384
  • Fax: 406-243-6366
  • Email: rachel.severson@umontana.edu
  • Office Hours:

    Office hours for Fall 2017:  Wednesday and Friday 11 - 12:30, and by appointment

  • URL: personal website
  • Curriculum Vitae: View/Download CV

Personal Summary

Dr. Rachel Severson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Montana. She received a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Washington (2010). Prior to joining the faculty at University of Montana in January 2016, she was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Oslo (2010-2011), a Visiting Assistant Professor at Western Washington University (2011-2013), and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia (2013-2016).

Dr. Severson is the Director of the Minds Lab, where she and her research team investigate how children attribute minds and internal states to human and non-human others (non-human animals, inanimate nature, and personified technologies, such as robots) and the social and moral consequences of doing so.

Information for Applicants to the Ph.D. Program in Developmental Psychology (Experimental Psychology Doctoral Program)

I plan on taking a graduate student to begin Autumn Semester 2018. For more information about our Doctoral Program in Experimental Psychology, including the application process, please see the Department of Psychology Graduate Program website.

I encourage you to contact me (rachel.severson@umontana.edu) if you are considering applying to work with me as a doctoral student.

Education

  • Ph.D., Developmental Psychology, University of Washington, 2010
  • M.A., Psychology, Antioch University, 2004
  • B.S., Environmental Policy & Assessment, Western Washington University, 1997

Courses Taught

Fall 2017

PSYX 230 – Developmental Psychology

PSYX 222 – Psychological Statistics

Spring 2018 

PSYX 222 – Psychological Statistics

PSYX 540 – Advanced Developmental Psychology

Teaching Experience

University of Montana (2016-current)

  • Psychological Statistics (PSYX 222)
  • Developmental Psychology (PSYX 230)
  • Advanced Developmental Psychology (PSYX 540)

Western Washington University (2011-2013)

  • Introduction to Psychology (PSY 101)
  • Honors Psychology Colloquium (HNRS 204)
  • Lifespan Developmental Psychology (PSY 230)
  • Child Development (PSY 330)
  • Research Methods (PSY 301)
  • Advanced Developmental Psychology Seminar: Pretense & Imagination (PSY 430)
  • Psychological Theory (Philosophy of Psychology) (PSY 482)

Research Interests

My research examines, from a developmental perspective, how people think about others’ minds. From a young age children understand other people as experiencing agents with goals, desires, emotions, beliefs, and thoughts, and they use this understanding to reason socially (e.g., who might be a credible source of knowledge) and morally (e.g., whether one has moral standing or can be held morally accountable). What’s particularly fascinating is that children (and adults) also extend minds (and human internal states more generally) to non-human entities, such as inanimate nature and technology—what is often referred to as anthropomorphism. The overarching aim of my research program is to elucidate the nature, causes, and consequences of anthropomorphism within the context of social cognition more broadly.

To this end, I am pursuing three main lines of research in my current program:

  1. One line of research focuses on the nature of anthropomorphism. Here, I seek to address basic research questions on anthropomorphism, such as whether and how children anthropomorphize, how this may differ across development and culture, and how anthropomorphism relates to other aspects of social cognition (e.g., theory of mind).
  2. A second line of research looks at potential explanations of anthropomorphism. For example, one possibility is that what looks like anthropomorphism of robots may in fact be something else altogether. A likely candidate is pretense, whereby children are not committed to their anthropomorphic attributions, rather they are just pretending, much in the way they do with stuffed animals and other toys. Another possibility is that children’s attributions to robots reflect more general tendencies to anthropomorphize, rather than it being specific to the robot.
  3. My third line of research examines the broader consequences of thinking about others’ minds. Here, my approach builds on research on social perspective taking and moral psychology. Perspective taking lies at the heart of social cognition providing the foundation for empathic concern, reduced prejudice, and moral regard for others.

In addressing these overarching questions, I am interested in examining the role of culture, experience, and learning in anthropomorphic beliefs, further investigating the developmental pathway and stability of anthropomorphism, and incorporating new methodologies (e.g., behavioral and neuroimaging approaches). I am also keen to develop new research questions through collaborations with faculty and graduate students.

Field of Study

Social Cognitive Development; Anthropomorphism; Social Perspective Taking (development, biases, and promotion); Pretense & Imagination; Selective Social Learning; Social-Moral Judgments and Reasoning; Environmental Moral Reasoning.

Publications

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

Severson, R. L., & Lemm, K. M. (2016). Kids see human too: Adapting an individual differences measure of anthropomorphism for a child sampleJournal of Cognition and Development, 17, 122-141. doi: 10.1080/15248372.2014.989445 

Baimel, A., Severson, R. L., Baron, A. S., & Birch, S. A. J. (2015). Enhancing 'theory of mind' through synchronyFrontiers in Psychology, 6, 870. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00870 

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., Freier, N. G., Severson, R. L., Gill, B. T., Ruckert, J. H., & Shen, S. (2012). “Robovie, you’ll have to go into the closet now”: Children’s social and moral relationships with a humanoid robotDevelopmental Psychology, 48, 303-314.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., Gill, B. T., Ruckert, J. H., Shen, S., Gary, H., Reichert, A. L., Freier, N. G., & Severson, R. L. (2012). Do people hold a humanoid robot morally accountable for the harm it causes? Proceedings of the 7th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2012, Boston, MA, March 5-8, 2012) (pp. 22-30) (Best Paper Award). Piscataway, NJ: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). doi: 10.1145/2157689.2157696 

Severson, R. L., & Carlson, S. M. (2010). Behaving as or behaving as if? Children's conceptions of  personified robots and the emergence of a new ontological categoryNeural Networks, Special Issue on Social Cognition: From Babies to Robots, 23, 1099-1103.

Severson, R. L., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2010). In the orchard: Farm worker children’s moral and environmental reasoningJournal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 249-256.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Ruckert, J. H., Severson, R. L., Reichert, A. L., & Fowler, E. (2010). A nature language: An agenda to catalog, save, and recover patterns of human-nature interaction. Ecopsychology, 2, 59-66.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Severson, R. L., & Ruckert, J. H. (2009). The human relationship with nature and technological natureCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 37-42.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Friedman, B., Gill, B. T., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., Freier, N. G., Feldman, E. N., Carrère, S., & Stolyar, A. (2008). A plasma display window? – The shifting baseline problem in a technologically-mediated natural worldJournal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 192-199.

Kahn, P. H. Jr., Saunders, C. D., Severson, R. L., Myers, O. E., Jr., & Gill, B. T. (2008). Moral and fearful affiliations with the animal world: Children’s conceptions of bats. Anthrozoös, 21, 375-386.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Freier, N. G., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., Ruckert, J. H., Severson, R. L., & Kane, S. K. (2008). Design patterns for sociality in human-robot interaction. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2008, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 12-15, 2008) (pp. 97-104). Piscataway, NJ: IEEE. doi: 10.1145/1349822.1349836

Stanton, C. M., Kahn, P. H., Jr., Severson, R. L., Ruckert, J. H., & Gill, B. T. (2008). Robotic animals might aid in the social development of children with autism. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2008, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 12-15, 2008) (pp. 271-278). Piscataway, NJ: IEEE. doi: 10.1145/1349822.1349858 

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Ishiguro, H., Friedman, B., Kanda, T., Freier, N. G., Severson, R. L., & Miller, J. (2007).  What is a human? – Toward psychological benchmarks in the field of human-robot interactionInteraction Studies: Social Behavior and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems, 8, 363-390. 

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., & Gill, B. (2006). The watcher and the watched: Social judgments about privacy in a public place. Human-Computer Interaction, 21, 235-272.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Freier, N. G., Friedman, B., Severson, R. L., & Feldman, E. (2004). Social and moral relationships with robotic others? Proceedings of the 13th International Workshop on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (ROMAN 2004, Kurashiki, Okayama, Japan, September 20-22, 2004) (pp. 545-550). Piscataway, NJ: IEEE. doi: 10.1109/ROMAN.2004.1374819

Invited Reviews and Commentaries

Severson, R. L. (2015). Good science? We should all be asking [Review of the book Who’s asking? Native science, Western science, and science education, by D. L. Medin & M. Bang]. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 38, 70-71. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2014.11.003

Severson, R. L. (2015). Film review: “School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten.”  Journal of Educational Controversy 9. Open access: http://www.wce.wwu.edu/Resources/CEP/eJournal/v009n001/

Severson, R. L. (2014). The value of (research on) animals in children’s lives: Commentary on Mueller. Human Development, 57, 26-29. doi:10.1159/000357792  

Chapters in Edited Volumes

Kahn, P. H., Jr., Severson, R. L., & Ruckert, J. H. (2009). Experiencing technological nature – and the problem when good enough becomes good. In M. Drenthen, J. Keulartz, & J. Proctor (Eds.), New Visions of Nature (pp. 145-176)Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., & Gill, B. (2009). The watcher and the watched: Social judgments about privacy in a public place.  Reprinted in R. Harper (Series Ed.), S. Harrison (Vol. Ed.), Media Space 20 + Years of Mediated Life. London: Springer.

Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Severson, R. L. (2008).  Environmental educationIn F. C. Power, R. J. Nuzzi, D. Narvaez, D. K. Lapsley, & T. C. Hunt (Eds.), Moral education: A handbook (Vol. 1, pp. 166-167). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Conference Presentations (since 2015)

Severson, R. L., Lau, P., Li, V., & Birch, S. A. J. (2017). Sometimes hesitancy is key: Effects of moral deliberations on children's interpretation of credibility cues. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Cognitive Development Society, Portland, OR.

Severson, R. L., Baimel, A., & Birch, S. A. J. (2017). When is confidence a justified credibility cue? Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Cognitive Development Society, Portland, OR.

Baimel, A., Severson, R. L., & Birch, S. A. J. (2017). Children and adult’s theory of mind supports anthropomorphic tendencies. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Austin, TX.

Birch, S. A. J, Baimel, A., & Severson, R. L. (2017). Children and adult’s understanding of unjustified confidence. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Austin, TX.

Severson, R. L. (2016, October). Young children attribute less to a robot when asked to take a peer’s perspective. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Special Topics Meeting on Technology and Media in Children’s Development, Irvine, CA.

Severson, R. L., & Birch, S. A. J. (2016, June). Discerning minds: Are children skeptical of an unjustifiably confident informant? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Chicago, IL.

Severson, R. L., Birch, S. A. J., Tahiroglu, D., Moses, L. J., Ghrear, S., & Haddock, T. (2016, June). The Children’s Social Understanding Scale Predicts Social-Emotional FunctioningPoster presented at the annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Chicago, IL.

Haddock, T., Ghrear, S., Brousseau-Liard, P., Severson, R., Birch, S., & Li, V. (2016, June). The curse of knowledge across development: A fluency misattribution account. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Chicago, IL.

Baimel, A., Severson, R., Birch, S., & Norenzayan A. (2015, May). Synchronous ritual and mental state reasoning. Presented at the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium’s 2015 Plenary Meeting (Religion in the text and on the ground), Montreal, Canada. 

Severson, R. L., Li, H., & Lillard, A. (2015, March). Cultural contributions to anthropomorphic beliefs. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA.

Severson, R. L., & Birch, S. A. J. (2015, March). Discerning minds: Older children become skeptical of an unjustifiably confident informant. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA.

Baimel, A., Severson, R. L., & Birch, S. A. J. (2015, March). The ‘eyes’ have it: Predicting individual differences in anthropomorphism. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA.

Ghrear, S., Haddock, T., Severson, R. L., Penner, E., & Birch, S. A. J. (2015, March). Developmental changes in children's curse of knowledge bias. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA.

Baimel, A., Severson, R., Birch, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2015, February). Synchronous ritual and mental state reasoning. Poster presented at the 16th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Long Beach, CA.

Invited Talks 

Severson, R. L. (2016, May). Discerning minds: Children’s developing skepticism of an unjustifiably confident model. Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway).

Severson, R. L. (2016, April). Discerning minds: Children’s developing skepticism of an unjustifiably confident model. Department of Psychology Colloquium, University of Montana (Missoula, MT).

Severson, R. L. (2014, February). Seeing human: Children’s anthropomorphic conceptions of robots. Department of Psychology, Developmental Area Colloquium, University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC, Canada).

Severson, R. L. (2013, May). Growing up green: What does time in nature do for your child? Department of Psychology Family Academy Lecture Series. Western Washington University (Bellingham, WA).

Severson, R. L. (2012, August). Children’s conceptions of robots as life-like: Are they just pretending? Conference on Perceiving and Conceiving Natural and Non-natural Agents: From People to Computers to Gods. Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN).

Severson, R. L. (2011, March). Thinking “as” or thinking “as if”: The role of pretense in children’s and young adults’ attributions to a robot dinosaur. Paper presented at the HRI Pioneers Workshop at the 6th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction (HRI 2011), Lausanne, Switzerland.

Severson, R. L. (2011, April). The intrinsic value of animals and robots: On the development of moral conceptions of non-human others. Social Choice Research Group, Department of Economics, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (Bergen, Norway).

Severson, R. L. (2010, December). Comment on A. Wax and M. Farah, The Neuroscience of Deprivation: Implications for Law and Policy (with an initial focus on sentencing). Center for the Study of Mind in Nature Conference on Law and the Science of Moral Judgment, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway).

Severson, R. L. (2010, November). Thinking as or thinking as if: The role of pretense in children’s attributions to robots. Center for the Study of Mind in Nature Language and Rationality Seminar, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway).

Severson, R. L. (2010, September). The intrinsic value of animals and robots: On the development of moral conceptions of non-human others. Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature Colloquium, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway).

Affiliations

  • Association for Psychological Science (APS)
  • Society for Research in Child Development  (SRCD)
  • Cognitive Development Society (CDS)
  • Jean Piaget Society (JPS)

Professional Experience

Positions

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Montana, January 2016-present

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, K.I.D. Studies Centre (Director: Susan A.J. Birch), Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2013-2016

Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Western Washington University, 2011-2013

Fulbright Fellow, University of Oslo, Norway, 2010-2011

 

Other Professional Experience

Science Advisor, New York Hall of Science, 2009-2012, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (NSF-funded traveling exhibit on animal cognition)

Advisor/Consultant, Oakland Museum of California, 2010, Natural Sciences Exhibit

 

Ad hoc Reviewer

Journals

  • Child Development
  • Child Development Perspectives
  • Cognitive Development
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Science
  • Human Development
  • Journal of Cognition and Development
  • Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
  • Journal of Environmental Psychology
  • Journal of Human-Robot Interaction
  • Interaction Studies
  • International Journal of Human-Computer Studies

Grants

  • National Science Foundation
  • Austrian Science Fund – Hertha Firnberg Programme

International Experience

Fulbright Fellow, University of Oslo, Norway, 2010-2011