Myrtle Beach-area professor specializes in social aspects of psychology

Coastal Carolina University associate professor of psychology Terry F. Pettijohn, Ph.D. was recently named 2014 Horry Telephone Cooperative Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Lecturer and was honored at a ceremony on March 31.

Originally from Ohio, Pettijohn has been on the Grand Strand for six years, arriving here from an eight-year teaching stint at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. He and wife Shelley Pettijohn live in Myrtle Beach with children Ana (8) and Noah (4).

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and completed his master’s and doctorate at the University of Georgia. He is a member of the Association for Psychological Science, or APS.

When he was at grad school, Pettijohn and his wife would visit the Grand Strand two or three times a year because it was within driving distance of Athens, Ga. “We loved the area,” he says. “We loved coming to the beach, the restaurants, the atmosphere and the fun things we could do here.” On every visit, they would drive around the CCU campus in Conway, watching it grow each time. “We would daydream and say, ‘hey – wouldn’t it be cool if we could work here someday.’”

In 2008, this became a reality when Pettijohn landed a position with CCU. “I really liked living in the South, so when the opportunity to move back down was available, it was something that my wife and I both felt strongly that it was a great move for us.” Shelley Pettijohn is now a Realtor here.

Pettijohn specializes in social psychology – interpersonal relationships, love and attraction and pop culture and music preferences. He shares his name with his father, who is a professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“Psychology has always been fascinating to me,” he says. “It’s about people and what people do and how they think and make decisions. At first I didn’t know if I want to do exactly the same thing [as his father].” He started off on a math and science track, but he kept gravitating to psychology. “The social psych stuff is really interesting to me - relationships and attraction – and so I kind of defined myself a little bit differently. But it was still something that was familiar to me from growing up; the professor lifestyle and the ability to do research, teach and interact with students and try to create new things.”

One of these new things is Pettijohn’s “Environmental Security” hypothesis.

“It’s a theory that suggests that how safe and secure we feel in our environment influences what we prefer,” he says. “And so when we feel threatened or uncertain, the idea is that we would gravitate toward these more serious, meaningful things that help us to negate some of those negative feelings and to help us to handle the situation at that time.” This can mean a relationship, friend, movie star and musical choices. The flipside is that when things are going well and a person can relax and celebrate, the preferences change to different types of people or music. “These are reflections of our mood and what we are going through in our lives at that time.”

Pettijohn on being named for the HTC award: “It was completely humbling and a really nice, unexpected surprise.”

When he’s not lecturing, researching, attending departmental meetings or talking to students during office hours, it’s time to decompress.

He goes to the beach at least once a week. “I like to run – very slowly but I like to run. I usually have a routine on the weekend that I can go run on the beach for a little bit by myself.” This also serves as a reminder of why he’s here in the first place. The family joins him frequently for beach time as well, or they might be spotted at Broadway at the Beach at spots such as WonderWorks or Ripley’s Aquarium. “We take advantage of all of the touristy things, and we’re constantly having guests that come into town who want to go to those places, too. But the Aquarium is a big favorite. My son could go there every single day and he would be happy doing that.”

But is this home?

“We are definitely very happy here. I think our kids are incredibly happy here. We love the different weather patterns compared to Erie. You got 150 inches of snow there every year. My daughter remembers those things and she did not like the cold and the snow. We’ve been very happy in Myrtle Beach, and I think we have laid down a lot of roots.”