Rowan researcher named an NIH New Innovator

Rowan researcher named an NIH New Innovator

Dani Arigo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology in the College of Science & Mathematics.

A Rowan University psychologist has received the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award, the first researcher at the 100-year-old academic institution to do so. The award is part of the agency’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which supports highly innovative scientists who propose visionary and broadly impactful behavioral and biomedical research projects. 

Dani Arigo, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology in Rowan’s College of Science & Mathematics, will use the five-year, $1.5 million grant to pursue the next frontier in understanding the many ways people are influenced by social comparisons. 

In 2023, the NIH Common Fund awarded 85 High-Risk, High-Reward Research Awards, totaling approximately $187 million over five years, pending the availability of funds. The program announced awards in four categories. Arigo was one of 58 investigators to receive the New Innovator Award. 

“The HRHR program is a pillar for innovation here at NIH, providing support to transformational research, with advances in biomedical and behavioral science,” said Robert W. Eisinger, Ph.D., acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “These awards align with the Common Fund’s mandate to support science expected to have exceptionally high and broadly applicable impact.”

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supports investigators at each career stage who propose innovative research that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional NIH peer-review process. Investigators seeking program support are encouraged to think beyond traditional bounds and to pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

“We are thrilled that the NIH recognizes Dr. Arigo’s passion and drive to better understand how to encourage healthy behaviors,” said Mei Wei, Ph.D., Rowan University’s vice president for research. “As it unfolds, this project will not only benefit Rowan University students, but also the surrounding community and our partnering health systems, Virtua Health and Cooper University Health Care.”

Arigo’s work centers on social comparisons, which occur any time we compare something about ourselves to someone else. For example, people often compare status, income, and aspects of our health. The goal of this project is to understand how social comparisons can be used to encourage healthy habits, particularly physical activity.

“Social comparisons are powerful and ubiquitous, but we do not understand how they work,” Arigo said. “Many people, including researchers, believe that because comparison is a common experience, and because it is already implemented in interventions, we already fully understand it. But evidence consistently shows that comparisons are detrimental for health outcomes as often as they are beneficial, so prompting comparison is not always optimal to promote healthy behavior change.”

“Not every social comparison is motivating,” Arigo added, using physical activity leaderboards as an example. “One of our aims is to figure out how to avoid prompting people to make the ones that are going to be detrimental to them. We’re also interested in whether we can help people reframe potentially negative comparisons to offer some benefit.”

The New Innovator Award gives scientists the freedom to develop new ways to study a problem, allowing investigators to quickly pivot as they gather new information, Arigo noted. 

“I have so many ideas that I’ve wanted to pursue over the past few years that led to this application,” Arigo said. The award gives Arigo and her team the time and resources they need to begin exploring data they have already collected to inform the design of their next study.

The grant will support a full-time research coordinator; two Ph.D. students in the clinical psychology program; six undergraduate students and contributions from additional Ph.D. students and a postdoctoral research fellow. This award also transitions Arigo from the NIH status of early career researcher to that of established independent investigator.

Ultimately, Arigo hopes her work will lead people toward better health outcomes and the ability to think more flexibly about what it means to be healthy. 

“Health isn’t about being an athlete,” Arigo said. “Health is about giving yourself the space and time you need to do well for your body. That takes a lot less time and energy than we’ve been led to believe.”

“The work that my team and I do is all about small changes,” Arigo said, “and we’re trying to understand how small changes—prompted by social comparisons, conscious or otherwise—can add up to bigger behavior change, which can improve long-term health outcomes.”