Senior Maria Naclerio Receives 2019-2020 Jerome S. Bruner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Maria Naclerio

The Duke University Department of Psychology and Neuroscience is pleased to announce that senior Maria Naclerio (Psychology Major, Neuroscience/Chemistry Minors) is the recipient of the 2019-2020 Jerome S. Bruner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. 

Naclerio’s research centers around transformative emotions, including awe and salient, strong emotional experiences. Her senior thesis project investigates the role of the emotion of awe in religious self-sacrifice by looking at parochial altruism (in this case: the sacrifice of self for the benefit of one particular group) through the lens of religious extremism. Naclerio’s research employs a variation of the “trolley dilemma” which examines whether individuals are willing to switch the track of a trolley car to sacrifice themselves for five members of their religious group. Naclerio also uses a questionnaire to gain answers to questions like: Would you hurt someone if it would help your religious group?

When asked about the genesis of her interest in this area of research, Naclerio shared: “I’d been interested in the psychology of religion for some time after taking a class abroad in New Zealand, and awe is just a feeling in my own personal life that I’m really curious about.”

As a working definition of awe, Naclerio explained: “It’s an expansive feeling that makes people challenge the cognitive framework they already have. Awe also happens to be a booming field of research,” she continued, “After a 2003 research article, it’s been growing ever since.”

Eventually Naclerio would like to pursue a Ph.D. and study social psychology and neuroscience. As a native of Menlo Park, California, she dreams of returning to her home state to attend graduate school at Cal Berkeley. But that’s down the road. For now, Naclerio is focused on her final semester as a Duke undergrad and is looking forward to the possibility of taking a gap year to explore research-related work before applying to graduate programs. “I’ve had a ton of opportunities at Duke, both in research and travel,”  Naclerio said, “Which are two things that I’m really passionate about. I’ve really taken advantage of those opportunities and they’ve been real highlights."