Maryanne Fisher is a full-time professor with Saint Mary’s University in the Department of Psychology, as well as Affiliate Faculty at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. Since joining SMU in 2004, Dr. Fisher’s research into human relationships through an evolutionary lens has earned her the reputation of being an expert in her field.
So what does happen when we mix genetics and evolution with psychology? We spoke with Dr. Fisher to find out more about her work at SMU and the world-class research coming from her lab.
Q: “Relationship Professor” sounds pretty intriguing, but there’s a bit more to it than that; how would you best explain the focus of your research at Saint Mary’s University?
A: When I talk to incoming students and they ask me what I do, right away I tell them I’m an evolutionary psychologist. And what that really means, is that I’m trying to better understand the interaction of our genes in our social environments, and how that interaction affects certain behaviors. For example, our sexual relationships, how women compete for men, and how people keep their mates.
Q: The “biology-meets-psychology” approach to your research is quite intriguing. How did you develop an interest in this particular intersection of study?
A: Well, when I was a first-year student I actually started as an English Major, but I took an intro psych course on a bit of a whim. At the same time, I was also taking a genetics course, which I became really, really fascinated by. And I remember approaching my psych professor and asking, “Does anyone study anything to do with genetics and psychology?” And I still remember his response to this day: “No, and why would anyone want to?”.
And so, I buried that question as I left the English program to pursue my degree in psychology. It wasn’t until my third year in an evolutionary psychology course that the genetic component sort of resurfaced, and I remember thinking that this was all I wanted to do. And so I did.
Q: You’ve published over 90 peer-reviewed journal articles, primarily related to women’s evolved psychology. For those unfamiliar with the field, what’s one thing you find particularly interesting about this field?
A: What I love about evolutionary psychology is that it captures a wider view of the human mind than any other perspective. We can study the more surface level explanation for behaviors, but then we can also put a deeper explanation on them, too. We're the only area that effectively can study everything from taste to feelings to reactions to family interaction to love. It's incredible.
Q: How would you describe the research opportunities for students—in your field, specifically—at Saint Mary’s University?
A: To be quite honest, as a professor, I could have chosen any number of schools. But I remember when I joined Saint Mary’s University, I fell in love with it, as well as the city itself.
But aside from the environment, what I really love about Saint Mary’s is that I can have first year students walk in to my class and actually work with me in the lab, participating in real, publishable research. In fact, this year, four of my students won awards against PhD students, and one of those four was a first-year student. We’re producing world-class research in that lab, and that’s amazing. So in terms of research opportunities at SMU, they’re really quite valuable and hands-on.
Q: I’ve heard that even Harlequin Romance Novels have found their way into your research?
A: Oh, yes! That was a lot fun to do. Maybe this is where the former English major in me comes out?
I got into the Harlequin subject as I was working with some collaborators, looking at proper heroes versus dark heroes in Byronic literature, and studying these themes through the lens of evolutionary psychology. And out of this process, we realized that there’s no reason to just stick to old literature. Really, we can take any modern artifact that we create and try to understand it from an evolutionary point of view. And the Harlequin stuff was sort of the beginning of that realization for me. I’m actually hoping to work with that company again.
Q: What do you love best about teaching at Saint Mary’s?
A: It’s definitely the students. It’s always been the students. When I started teaching, I had some experience, but I was young. In some cases, I was the same age as some of my students. But what I really remember was how respectful and engaged the students were. They wanted to learn. And once I started refining my focus as a teacher, the students really ran with it. It’s a partnership between myself and the students, and the overall environment at Saint Mary’s has been incredibly positive and a wonderful experience.
Q: What would your advice be to a grade 12 student who might be thinking of a career in psychology?
A: It’s actually funny – I have a lot of family members and family friends who are all of that age, and they’re all coming to Saint Mary’s. So I’ve heard this question before! In terms of advice, in your first year or two, try everything. Try it all. Take courses that you don’t think you’re going to like because they might surprise you. Take the time to explore different points of view before deciding what you want to commit to. That means reading far more than what’s assigned, and also reading material that speaks against the common assertions of your field of focus. That’s really the best way to discover what your passion is.
Q: Finally, can you give us a glimpse into anything fascinating in the world of relationships that you’re currently researching, or planning to research in the future?
A: I’m actually working on something a little bit different than the field of mating relationships at the moment. I realized a little while ago that from an evolutionary point of view, the mating stuff is really about trying to protect your investment as a woman. And I realized that when you get right down to it, mothers are also competing for very similar things – again, competing to protect your investment. I’m calling this research area Maternal Competition. So, it’s still about relationships, but it’s more about how mothers might judge each other, or how non-mothers might judge other moms.
But maybe the biggest thing that I’m currently working on is an argument that the maternal instinct is actually a myth. I’m going to use a lot of biological evidence to argue that it does not exist, and is in fact, more of a cultural fabrication than anything else. It’s definitely a bit different, but those are probably the most exciting projects coming down the pipe for me.