Scholar alum returns to University of Arizona

September 22, 2014

By hammersmith

Nearly a decade after being introduced to existential psychology at the University of Arizona, Daniel Sullivan returned to Tucson to teach undergraduate courses and conduct research at his alma mater.

The Class of 2004 Flinn Scholar from Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix graduated from the University of Arizona in 2008 with a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in German studies. He received both his master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Kansas in 2010 and 2013.

As it turned out, UA had an opening for an assistant-professor position at the same time Sullivan was looking for a job. He applied and was offered the position at the university.

“I believe I was offered the job partly because the faculty was familiar with me and the theoretical perspective that I come from—since I learned it at the UA,” Sullivan says. “It worked out well because I like Tucson, love the UA psychology department, and still have family in the state.”

While Sullivan earned all his degrees in psychology, he admits that he actually finds swaths of the discipline uninteresting. However, a particular brand of existential-philosophical psychology pioneered by UA faculty member Jeff Greenberg, who Sullivan met as a freshman working in Greenberg’s lab, attracted Sullivan to the field.

The Research

Sullivan’s research interests include terror management—a theory about how fear of death influences people’s behavior—along with suffering, anxiety, guilt, cultural differences, and religion.

“Life is in fact a very frightening affair, and it’s doomed to end at any moment—but most of us, especially from more privileged backgrounds, don’t think about it that way most of the time and instead we think that life is fun and meaningful.   

“Why is this the case?” Sullivan asks. “Why aren’t we all constant nervous wrecks? It turns out that culture convinces us that life is meaningful and that there are goals worth pursuing and we are relatively safe. This is obviously true of religion, but it is also true of other kinds of secular ideologies, like science or politics. These are the kinds of issues—often overlooked in the study of human behavior—which fascinate me and form the basis of my research.”

While in graduate school at the University of Kansas, Sullivan decided it was necessary to study sociology and anthropology just as much as psychology to truly understand human nature.

“I realized that to really understand how people interpret and cope with threatening events, I needed to understand general variation in how people think about the world,” Sullivan says. “Cultures around the world and throughout history have represented death and immortality in radically different ways.”

Another interesting subject of his work appears counterintuitive: exploration of how an enemy can improve a person’s life. Sullivan and his colleagues published a paper in 2010 that presented studies showing that if you remind people of the fact that they have enemies, this actually boosts their feelings of personal control, because they see less overall risk in their environment.

“It is psychologically preferable to think of danger not as randomly distributed throughout your environment in the form of possible accidents or illnesses that could happen at any moment, but rather as stemming from a single, identifiable, human source—an enemy,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan says his current research involves exposing UA undergraduates to threatening information, like reminders of death, along with community-based studies.  He teaches courses at UA on existential psychology, as well as personality and cultural psychology.

Sullivan and Greenberg co-edited the 2013 book, Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black, which features 15 scholarly chapters written by psychologists, film scholars, philosophers, and a filmmaker about the portrayal of death in movies. Sullivan and Greenberg wrote the introduction and conclusion for the book, which covers a wide range of films, from the “Twilight” movies to Ingmar Bergman, to apocalyptic science-fiction.

The Flinn Community

Sullivan applied for the Flinn Scholarship in the fall of 2003 after being told about it by a science teacher who was a big advocate of the program.

“I didn’t know anything about it, but she told me to apply,” he says. “I owe her a lot.”

Sullivan discovered his passion in existential psychology specifically because he went to UA. Before receiving the Flinn Scholarship, Sullivan was planning on going to the University of California at Berkeley. He says he never would have discovered this kind of psychology there and likely would have changed majors.

Sullivan, who was called “Sully” by his fellow Flinn Scholars, says being part of the community was his favorite aspect of the program.

Undoubtedly the best part of the program was getting to make lasting friendships with fellow Scholars,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan played drums—typically hand drums—with the band, The Hermit Tree, along with fellow Flinn Scholars Matt Rolland and Bob Hanshaw, during his undergraduate years. The acoustic Celtic/bluegrass band played regularly at the Auld Dubliner in Tucson, and recorded an album of original material.

Rolland and the lead singer went on to form a traditional bluegrass band, Run Boy Run, which has found significant success, appearing twice on Prairie Home Companion.  With no need for a drummer in the band, Sullivan asserts that he was never replaced. Sullivan says that now that he’s back in Tucson, he plays occasionally with his former bandmates.  

As part of the Flinn study-abroad experience, Sullivan spent a year in Austria at the University of Salzburg, where he took courses towards his German studies degree. In addition, Sullivan said he was able to work in a research lab there studying the same branch of social psychology that he was learning about in Tucson.

Sullivan says he had “an amazing time” on the Hungary-Romania summer seminar, where Scholars travel abroad for three weeks after their freshman year. Today, the seminar is held in Beijing and rural China.  

Sullivan says he fell in love with Budapest, Hungary, on the trip and years later proposed to his wife on the bank of the Danube River. After she accepted, the newly-engaged couple then took a short river cruise. When they returned, waiting to board the boat for its next cruise was a group of young Flinn Scholars—visiting Hungary for their own summer seminar.

It was just another reminder that the Scholar community has never drifted too far away.