Postdoc Meltem Yucel Studies How Gossip Influences Relationships

Meltem Yucel on ski slopes
In her free time, Postdoc Meltem Yucel enjoys a day on the slopes. (Photo courtesy of Meltem Yucel)

Meltem Yucel is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience working with Professor Tamar Kushnir in the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory and James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor Mike Tomasello in the Tomasello Lab.  

Yucel’s primary research interests include the development of social cognition and morality, with a focus on how and when children become moral beings. She’s also deeply invested in diversifying psychology and making it more accessible.  

With that goal, Yucel has founded two initiatives: — a resource she presented to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Listening Sessions — and the International Moral Psychology List and Seminar Series which disseminates morality research worldwide. 

Yucel has received over 70 awards/fellowships/grants, including three dissertation awards from the American Psychological Association, the Society for Affective Science and the International Society for Research on Emotion, an early career award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and an F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. She has also been a guest expert on the podcast “Getting Curious with Jonathan van Ness” where she discussed gossip and what it reveals about moral and social codes. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.     

How did you become interested in your research?    

My interest in research was sparked by my upbringing in Turkey, where gossip held a significant place in daily life. I vividly recall events like the "Day of Gold," gatherings attended by housewives and retired women primarily devoted to eating, knitting and engaging in gossip, all events I found myself forced to attend during my childhood. The constant exposure to gossip and its social dynamics fueled my curiosity about how and why we share information about others — and what happens when we do and when we don’t. While gossip was my first topic of interest, it took a while to get to studying it.   

I first started by investigating children’s social-cognitive development. My experiences at Koc University in Turkey, and later at an undergraduate summer internship at Harvard University, led me to think more deeply about evolutionary psychology and what comparative studies can teach us about how we become social. In 2014, I joined Mike Tomasello’s summer internship program at Max Planck Institute’s Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center, where I helped conduct studies with great apes. Aside from being two of the best summers of my life, these two internships had a monumental impact on my academic pursuits. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia (UVA), I studied why children tattle, how children and adults think about fairness norms and how gossip impacts friendship connections.   

What interested you in joining Duke?  

Dr. Tamar Kushnir! Having had strong social/moral development training, I wanted to strengthen my training in children’s cognitive development. I had been following Tamar’s amazing work for many years and I knew I wanted to work with her to develop my knowledge base on cognitive development. I had also seen her devotion to her trainees and how awesome she is as a mentor. All these aspects made Tamar an ideal PI, and Duke a perfect postdoc location for me.   

Can you tell us a bit about your study analyzing social networks, gossip and friendship on college campuses?    

I’m interested in how gossiping and being the target of gossip can influence friendship connections. My collaborators and I examined this in a study of men and women collegiate rowing teams at a small liberal arts school. We asked the rowers to disclose with whom are they friends and about whom do they positively and negatively gossip. We then mapped the team’s friendship, positive gossip and negative gossip social networks and analyzed the relation between each. We found that team members who reported strong friend group connectedness were less involved in spreading negative gossip or being the target of such gossip. The more central connectedness to the friend group was also associated with greater involvement in spreading positive gossip and being the target of positive gossip.  

Some of your research investigates why young children and adults care more about moral violations than conventional violations — what have you found?  

We know that children understand and enforce moral norms, which are aimed at preserving the rights and welfare of others. Children also distinguish moral norms from other types of norms, such as conventional norms, which serve to ensure coordination within social groups or institutions. In one study, I investigated whether emotions or affect are involved in how we distinguish moral norms from conventional norms. To do this, I showed three-year-olds, four-year-olds and undergraduate students a video of either a moral norm violation (someone destroying another person’s artwork) or a conventional norm violation (someone playing a game wrong) and measured how their pupil size changed as a response to the norm violation.   

In line with our expectations and prior work, we found that adults showed greater pupil dilation immediately after seeing a moral violation than a conventional violation. The important and novel finding was that this effect also emerged among children: Both three- and four-year-olds showed greater pupil dilation when viewing moral violations than conventional violations.  

This is the first evidence that when children first begin to make the conceptual distinction between moral and conventional violations (around three years of age), they are also differentially aroused by such violations. Differential affective arousal is, therefore, present at least as early in ontogeny as the conceptual differentiation. These results, together with existing behavioral data with older children and adults, indicate that affective arousal may be an important and constant feature of the moral-conventional distinction and warrants greater attention.   

What is a “pro tip” for mentorship and teaching that you’ve learned over the years?  

A valuable insight I’ve gained over the years is to recognize that the scope of our roles as mentors and teachers extends beyond the confines of the classroom. I don’t view teaching as an isolated activity restricted to the classroom; I see it as intricately embedded into all parts of academic life.  

This realization dawned on me unexpectedly while watching a movie: the Turkish comedy, The Chaos Class/Hababam Sınıfı. It left a lasting impression on me with its profound line: “School isn’t just a place with four walls and a roof. School is wherever knowledge and learning is.” This perspective has since guided my approach to teaching and mentorship.  

What do you like to do outside of your work?  

I love walking, running, skiing, reading and watching Formula 1. As a side note, you can almost always find me walking the Duke Gardens during my lunch break. Please knock on my door if you want a walking buddy!  

What is something that you love about Durham?  

It is hard to pick a favorite, so I will go for three: Monuts, the Museum of Life and Science and the number of hiking opportunities in the area.