UCLA’s Shelley Taylor awarded National Medal of Science at the White House

AcademicFaculty and Staff

President Joe Biden this morning presented UCLA Distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology Shelley Taylor with the prestigious National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony.

Established by Congress in 1959 and administered by the National Science Foundation, the medal is the nation’s highest scientific honor.

In announcing the awarding of the medal, the White House military aide cited Taylor’s “groundbreaking research into mental health and the power of human connection” and “helping to establish the fields of social cognition, health psychology and social neuroscience and increasing our nation’s well being.

“Her work showed that optimism, self-esteem and strong relationships improve the health of people with cancer, diabetes and other diseases.”

Shelley Taylor receiving the National Medal of Science from President Joe Biden at the White House. (Courtey of C-SPAN).

Taylor, who has been a faculty member at UCLA since 1979, is a pioneer of social cognition who revealed the role of cognitive bias in social relations. Social cognition is the process of people making sense of the social world — how they think about themselves, other people, social groups, human history and the future. This social knowledge begins to develop in infancy, and guides human beliefs about others and social behavior.

Though a common term today, cognitive bias was a new idea when Taylor and Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, described it in 1984. They proposed a model in which people process information about their social environment (people, groups, social situations) at two distinct speeds: a slow, careful speed based on a systematic analysis of all available data, and a faster, relatively superficial one drawing on “cognitive shortcuts,” biases and strategies that simplify complex problems. In this model, people are far less rational than they think they are, often relying on shortcuts, including stereotypes, to evaluate their social environment and make decisions.

Taylor is also among the founders of health psychology and is renowned for her contributions on how stress affects health and how social factors are able to buffer this effect. Her contributions to this field include the concept of “positive illusions” — how people tend to perceive things in an optimistic light, believing they are better than they are. Taylor showed that this bias contributes to the improvement of health and that these illusions are very adaptive.

A group of nine National Medal of Science winners with three other people in the White House

U.S. National Science Foundation
Shelley Taylor, second from left, with other 2023 National Medal of Science laureates.

In other research, she developed a highly influential alternative to the prevailing fight-or-flight theory of how people respond to stressful events. Her “tend-and-befriend” model posits that people, especially women, respond to stress by protecting or nurturing others and seeking out members of their social group for mutual defense.

The National Medal of Science is given by the president to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences. This is the first time the award has been given since 2016.

Taylor, who is a a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was among nine recipients of the medal today. Eleven people received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at the ceremony, which was attended by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.

Taylor joins 11 other UCLA faculty members who have received the National Medal of Science, including mathematics and computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock (2007), chemistry and biochemistry professor Mostafa El-Sayed (2007), geography professor and biological scientist Jared Diamond (2000), engineer and physicist C. Kumar Patel (1996), biochemist Elizabeth Neufeld (1994), Nobel Prize–winning chemist Donald Cram (1993), chemist Richard Bernstein (1989), chemist Saul Winstein (1970), meteorologist Jacob Bjerknes (1966), geophysicist William Rubey (1965) and physicist Julian Schwinger (1964).