Piercarlo Valdesolo ’95 has two takeaways from Pike – a life lesson and a best friend. He is in his third year as Assistant Professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California where he teaches courses on social and moral psychology and runs the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab (“affectionately known as the MEATLab”). “This may sound odd to those who like to have clear lines between the office and the rest of their lives, but I love that I can take much of my work with me wherever I go. I’m in many ways paid to think, and I can do this while going for a run, or making dinner, or lying on the beach, or staring blankly into space at a coffee shop,” said Piercarlo. “Of course, I also love interacting with highly motivated and engaged students. That’s the icing on the cake.” He has been studying negative behaviors in social relationships for more than a decade.
Piercarlo attended Pike from Kindergarten through eighth grade and still carries with him a valuable lesson he learned early in his educational journey. “Hard work doesn’t, and shouldn’t, always pay off in the short-term,” said Piercarlo. “This only became clear in retrospect. As a student I wanted to receive immediate rewards for all my efforts. Of course, this didn’t happen. Learning to deal with that kind of frustration and ultimately seeing benefits unfold over time helped prepare me for all kinds of professional challenges.” The memory that sticks out in his mind is not his favorite but nonetheless, it shaped how he sees the world. “In Mr. Purington’s 7th grade math class he taught us about fractals, and on the ensuing test I got the lowest grade I had ever received on any graded work. Stunned, I mumbled, ‘You gave me a 76,’ to which he responded, ‘You earned a 76.’”
While his interest in social psychology did not begin at Pike, one cannot help but wonder if he was analyzing the social behaviors of his peers on the playgrounds and in the classrooms during the nine years he attended. “My introduction to psychology course at Amherst College turned me on to the topic. I was particularly struck by Social Psychology. All the challenges and anxieties of navigating social life that seemed so important in high school and college were explained with a kind of detached objectivity that I found very comforting and insightful,” said Piercarlo. He wrote his senior thesis on the topic of jealousy in close relationships. This project led him to pursue graduate school.
“During this process, I learned that one of the most well respected researchers in the field worked at Northeastern. As a Boston native this was very exciting, so I applied to work with him and ended up earning my PhD in Social Psychology four years later,” said Piercarlo. “I became particularly interested in how emotions affect our moral decisions,” said Piercarlo. He became so interested in this topic that he and his graduate school advisor co-authored a book called Out of Character. “It’s a nice summary of our approach towards answering why it is that otherwise normal people are capable of performing abnormally unethical (or heroic) deeds,” said Piercarlo. “A study I conducted in graduate school on the topic of moral hypocrisy was covered in the science section of the New York Times after which we were approached by several literary agents to develop an idea for the book. It seemed like a fun project and it was a way for my advisor and I to continue our work together post grad school.”
Today, his research is aimed at addressing adolescent bullying- a timely topic in all middle schools. “I have recently started several projects related to developing both online and offline bullying interventions. The goal of this work, part of which is done as a consultant for Facebook Inc., is to find ways to nudge adolescents towards feeling more compassion for others, and to recognize and control the psychological forces that might cause them to act in undesirable ways,” said Piercarlo. “In the lab, I work with undergraduate research assistants to develop, design and conduct experiments that test how people’s emotional responses change their judgments of right and wrong, as well as their moral or immoral behavior towards others.”
Though the path to Piercarlo’s success has taken him to different cities and new findings, one thing has remained constant – his friendship with classmate Simon Thavaseelan ’95. They met at a birthday party when the two of them were in Kindergarten more than 20 years ago. “I can’t remember whose party it was, but it was at the Dream Machine arcade in Methuen, MA,” said Piercarlo. After Pike, the two boys headed up the street to Phillips Academy. Though they live on opposite coasts now, they’ve celebrated each other’s life moments including marriages to their wives and the births of their daughters. “We just got together for New Year’s in Chicago, and our daughters were very excited to get a chance to play together.” Sounds like another lifelong friendship in the making.