UC Davis Professor’s Paper Spawned Legacy of Research

Portrait photo
Phillip Shaver, a distinguished professor emeritus of psychology in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science, will be honored by the Society of Personality and Social Psychology for the legacy of his research on adult relationships.

Shaver to be honored as “luminary figure” of social psychology.

Little did Phillip Shaver realize when he co-authored a scholarly article on romantic love in 1987 that his findings would transform the study of interpersonal relations.

The Society of Personality and Social Psychology, with more than 7,500 members, recently announced that it will celebrate the legacy of the UC Davis distinguished professor emeritus in the College of Letters and Science during its Feb. 7–9, 2019, convention in Portland, Oregon.

The society’s legacy program honors “luminary figures” in social and personality psychology, tracing their impact on contemporary work with a symposium, luncheon for 55 colleagues and former students, and research posters by researchers who are extending the legacy.

Expanded knowledge of human bonding

Attachment theory began with psychological studies in the 1960s and ’70s of patterns of infant-mother attachment. The 1987 paper by Shaver and co-author Cindy Hazen identified the same patterns in adult relationships.

Those findings “spawned an enormous interdisciplinary and international research literature,” according to the society’s website for the Feb. 9 Legacy Symposium: “Over the past 30 years, hundreds of studies have been published covering attachment processes in the brain, the personality, romantic and marital relationships, religious experiences, and large organizations.”

Hazen, now a professor at Cornell University, will be among the symposium speakers. She was a graduate student and Shaver was a professor at the University of Denver when their article, “Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process,” appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A game-changing study

Shaver said that when they submitted the paper for publication, it was so far outside the mainstream of social psychology that he worried that it might derail his career. Instead, the paper immediately attracted interest.

“A lot of young researchers, including the growing number of young women in the field, followed up the initial study in interesting and unanticipated ways,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have come along when the number of women in the field was growing, which made close relationships a more acceptable topic, and when the divorce rate in the U.S. was of concern to government research funders and to the American population.

“At the same time, new research techniques were developed, making it possible to pursue personality and relationship phenomena that had not been studied empirically before.”

UC Davis alumnus among speakers

Other symposium speakers are Mario Mikulincer, psychology professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, and R. Chris Fraley, who earned his Ph.D. at UC Davis in 1999 and is now a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The study of adult attachment is summarized in various books by Shaver, Hazan, Mikulincer, Fraley and their many of their students and collaborators from many countries. Among the books is Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change by Mikulincer and Shaver, released in its second edition in 2016.

Guests at the legacy luncheon will include his wife, Gail Goodman, a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Davis, as well as former students and other researchers from around the world who study adult relationships.

A legacy of collaborations

The legacy honor is the latest in a series of career awards that Shaver has received for his research. In fall 2016, he received an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University during a white-tie ceremony in Stockholm City Hall, where Nobel Prize laureates receive their awards.

Shaver, who joined UC Davis in 1992 and served twice as psychology department chair, has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, and numerous foundations. He has written more than 300 scholarly articles and book chapters, and coauthored and co-edited numerous books. 

Speaking about the latest award he said:

“It’s both gratifying and a little embarrassing. I’m as much a legacy of these other creative people as they are of me; we have all worked hard for many years to build this field, sometimes collaborating directly and sometimes influencing each other from a distance.

"I guess I am receiving the award because I’ve been around the longest. At age 74, I’m happy to sit back and cheer all the young researchers who are extending the legacy.” 

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Adult Attachment Lab

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science