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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The One-Time Liquor Store Stock Boy Analyzing Some of Our Closest Relationships

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

When Bill Chopik was in high school, he was a stock boy at a bar and liquor store in Evergreen Park, a suburb on Chicago’s South Side. Working into the wee morning hours—3 a.m., sometimes—he learned a lot about the clientele, including their triumphs and tragedies.

“The life histories of the patrons were the most interesting to me. I found myself constructing mini-theories for how people’s lives turned out they way they did.” That’s how he first became interested in psychology. “The job also instilled a great work ethic,” he says.

It sure did: Come fall, he’ll be an assistant professor at Michigan State University, and is approaching two-dozen published papers. He won a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation and was named an outstanding instructor at the University of Michigan, the school’s highest teaching award, given to less than one percent of graduate students.

"The things we do, and why we do them, are almost always tied to something that has to do with other people. Why do some people respond differently despite being put in the same situation? These questions motivate me. Also, caffeine."

Chopik’s research focuses on how relationships change across situations and over time. He focuses on internal factors, like hormones, as well as external ones, like social roles and geography.

One of his studies found that having a life partner who is “high in optimism” makes you healthier overall and less likely to have chronic illnesses, even if you aren’t an optimist yourself. “A spouse's personality can have huge implications for our well-being,” Chopik says.

Another of his projects involved doing a text analysis of every State of the Union Address ever given, going back to George Washington, to see how the language presidents use has evolved. He found that, over time, the speeches started to use more “me”-focused language, especially after 1900.

“I have a natural fascination with people,” Chopik says. “I’ve also been the recipient of the benefits of many good relationships. The things we do, and why we do them, are almost always tied to something that has to do with other people. Why do some people respond differently despite being put in the same situation? These questions motivate me. Also, caffeine.”

Chopik has a mischievous sense of humor. When asked what he sees when he looks in the mirror, he replies: “Nothing. I’m a vampire.” His childhood dream was to be a cartoonist or a comedy writer. “I haven’t entirely given up on it,” he says. “Although now that I’m forced to reflect on it, I should, because I haven’t made it very far. OK, I just gave it up.”

We shouldn’t mourn his comic career, though, because his work is important for humans who co-exist. “I hope that I will have contributed to people’s understanding about relationships,” Chopik says. “And, hopefully, that people have more tools at their disposal to lead better, happier relationships. Close relationships are a huge determinant of our well-being, so I’m looking for ways that can enhance their quality.”

One exciting direction his research is taking is tracking how change occurs on multiple levels—he analyzes everything from the population level to the group or pair level, and down to the neuroendocrine level.

“Looking for psychological ideas in everyday life,” he says, “can be a fruitful exercise and make research a lot more fun.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).