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University of Massachusetts at Amherst

 

 

 

Big Picture

A central theme in social psychology is that people’s attitudes and behavior are frequently shaped by factors that lie outside their awareness and cannot be fully understood by self-reflection and self-report. Although individuals think their attitudes and actions are always guided by conscious awareness, intention, and control, research shows that they are routinely buffeted by situational forces without awareness. For example, even though people’s explicit or conscious attitudes and actions toward social groups may be unbiased, their implicit attitudes and actions are often biased in favor of groups that are privileged in society or against groups that are disadvantaged because stereotypic cues in everyday situations guide these responses without awareness and intention.

For many decades the dominant assumption in social psychology was that implicit prejudice and stereotypes are stable and resistant to change at least in the short term and that attitude change requires awareness of one’s bias, effortful re-learning, motivation, or large-scale societal changes. Because psychological theories frame attitude change as an effortful re-learning process that requires conscious mental processes, such change seemed less likely for implicit attitudes that bypass awareness, control, and effort.

My research challenges the assumption that implicit prejudice and stereotypes are immutable and identifies circumstances under which they can be changed. Some of my projects identify conditions that reduce implicit bias while other projects identify conditions that magnify implicit bias. Some projects focus on changing implicit stereotypes about outgroups whereas others focus on changing the impact of ingroup stereotypes on individuals’ own self-concept and life decisions.

Three questions

1. Does changing the local environment in which individuals are immersed reduce their implicit bias against disadvantaged groups (racial minorities, sexual minorities, women, the elderly)?

2. When do negative stereotypes about one’s own group implicitly constrain individuals’ self-concept in academic and professional domains? Does changing the local environment make individuals resilient to stereotypes?

3. Do people’s emotions magnify implicit bias in attitudes and behavior toward outgroups? When is this likely to happen? What groups are likely to be targeted?

 

Does changing the local environment in which individuals are immersed reduce their implicit bias against disadvantaged groups?

If negative implicit attitudes are created because people are immersed in environments where they frequently observe stereotypic depictions of social groups, such biases should shift if they are placed in alternative local environments where they see counterstereotypic images of the same groups. Using this reasoning, my collaborators and I found that people who had been immersed in experimental situations (by random assignment) or real-world situations where they encountered admired members of disadvantaged groups (African Americans, gays and lesbians, elderly, women), subsequently expressed less implicit bias against these groups and were more willing to support policies that benefit these groups than others who had not been immersed in such situations. The benefit of the local environment endured beyond the initial intervention. This work was done in collaboration with Tony Greenwald, Shaki Asgari, and Luis Rivera (see Dasgupta & Asgari, 2004; Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001; Dasgupta & Rivera, 2008). Part of this work was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

When do negative stereotypes about one’s ingroup implicitly constrain individuals’ self-concept? Does changing the local environment make individuals resilient to stereotypes?

Not only do stereotypes about outgroups bias people’s implicit attitudes and behavior toward others, but stereotypes about one’s own group also constrain individuals’ beliefs about their own competencies (i.e., their self-concept), which limit their academic and professional goals. Consider the case of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Even girls and women who perform well in STEM are often less confident about their ability than their male peers; they express less positivity toward STEM majors and careers; and are less likely to pursue these majors and careers than their male peers. What factors release societal constraints and enhance girls’ and women’s freedom to pursue academic and professional paths in STEM despite negative stereotypes?

I developed and tested a new theoretical model—the Stereotype Inoculation Model—where I predicted that contact with successful ingroup members who are STEM experts and peers functions as “social vaccines” that inoculate young women’s self-concept and increase their participation in science and engineering (for a review see Dasgupta, 2011). Results from several lab and field studies revealed that exposure to female STEM professors and experts enhanced women’s positive implicit attitudes toward STEM, increased their identification with STEM, their confidence in STEM, and effort on tests and exams. Same-sex experts were most beneficial when students identified with them personally (Stout, Dasgupta, Hunsinger, & McManus, 2011). We are finding similar effects among adolescent girls in middle school (Dasgupta, Hunsinger, & McManus, in preparation). This line of research is in collaboration with my graduate students Jane Stout, Matthew Hunsinger, and Melissa McManus Scircle and is funded by two grants from the National Science Foundation.

We have now turned my attention to how peers affect female students.  How does the gender composition of peers in STEM environments influence women’s interests? Are women more confident in their ability and more willing to participate when they are in science and engineering groups where their peers are mostly female or 50% female vs. groups where their peers are mostly male? When women are a small numeric minority, is there any benefit of having peer mentors, especially female peers mentors?  This work is in collaboration with my students Melissa McManus Scircle and Tara Dennehy.

In a related line of work I am testing the Stereotype Inoculation Model in the context of women’s decisions to pursue (or not pursue) professional leadership roles. My students and I found that the scarcity of women in professional leadership roles deters the next generation of young women from seeking out these roles and keeps alive the stereotype that men are more suited for leadership than women. However, as predicted by the Stereotype Inoculation Model, when female students are exposed to successful women who are leaders in business, law, politics, etc, these same-sex leaders function as “social vaccines” inoculating young women’s self-concept and increasing their interest in leadership-oriented careers. An important cautionary note revealed in our research is that successful female leaders function as social vaccines only if they are portrayed as similar to most women including participants themselves (see Asgari, Dasgupta, & Stout, in press; Asgari, Dasgupta, & Gilbert Cote, 2010).

Do specific emotions aroused in one situation spill over into another to bias implicit attitudes and behavior toward outgroups? When is this likely to happen? What groups are vulnerable to emotion-induced bias?

I am pursuing the issue of attitude malleability in a different way in a collaborative project with David DeSteno at Northeastern University. Our project investigates whether implicit prejudice toward outgroups is modulated by perceivers’ emotions. We found that inducing participants to feel angry or disgusted in one situation created implicit prejudice toward an unknown outgroup in another situation even though the emotion had been aroused by an unrelated source. However, anger vs. disgust had different effects on implicit prejudice toward known groups. Anger (but not disgust) increased implicit prejudice against Arabs, a group that triggers stereotypes about aggression and terrorism. Disgust (but not anger) increased implicit prejudice against gays and lesbians, a group that evokes stereotypes about moral contamination. These findings illustrate that emotions fan the flames of prejudice automatically in a surprisingly nuanced way (Dasgupta, DeSteno, Williams, & Hunsinger, 2009; DeSteno, Dasgupta, Bartlett, & Cajdric, 2004).

Our current work moves beyond prejudicial attitudes to shed light on discriminatory actions that are magnified by negative emotions. When and how do emotions like anger escalate aggressive and distrustful actions between groups? Several experiments, currently in progress, test this question using fast-paced videogames and eye-tracking tasks—in both we measure the likelihood that participants will behave aggressively and test whether their behavior varies as a function of their emotional state.  This work is in collaboration with Cade McCall, Adrian Staub, Kumar Yogeeswaran, Tara Dennehy, and Levi Adelman.