Shelton tells both sides of story in barrier-breaking research

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Imagine yourself a student, walking into a dining hall and looking for a place to sit. Not seeing any of your friends, you notice a group of students who live near you and are of a racial group other than your own. Would you join them? If not, why?


Nicole Shelton, assistant professor of psychology, and members of her lab have invented creative strategies to study interracial social interactions. While most work in the field has had a narrow focus on either the perpetrator or target of prejudice, Shelton looks at both sides at once to reveal remarkably dynamic interactions.


These are questions on Nicole Shelton's mind. Shelton, an assistant professor of psychology, studies interracial and interethnic relationships and often mines her insights from the real-life experiences of students. Her work puts her at the forefront of an emerging approach to social psychology that moves beyond carefully structured laboratory interactions and draws solid conclusions from the complexity of everyday life.

In a series of recent and forthcoming papers, Shelton shows how both majority and minority group members shape their interactions with a mix of prejudice, misunderstanding, anxiety and goodwill that is more dynamic than previously appreciated (see re-lated story on page 7). Her research, which is gaining attention in the field, may eventually yield new approaches for programs aimed at breaking down racial and ethnic barriers.

"She is dealing with critical social issues, and she is doing it in very rigorous, creative, systematic ways," said Carol Miller, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont and a leader in the field of intergroup relationships. "She gets in there and looks at real interactions and tries to figure out what is going on. There are very few people who have done that. I think her work is really important in that respect."

For Shelton, figuring out what is really happening means telling both sides of what has usually been a one-sided story. "People have been studying prejudice for a very long time," she said. "But the focus has been on whites and reducing their negative attitudes. I believe that is only part of the problem. The ethnic minority has something to bring to the interaction as well. So in my research I try to look at both sides, which makes it very complex."

In a study that uses the hypothetical dining hall scenario, Shelton and Jennifer Richeson of Dartmouth College reach a striking conclusion. They find that when whites and blacks fail to interact in a social situation, the reasons they give reveal a fundamental misunderstanding. Both sides attribute their reluctance to a fear of being rejected. At the same time, neither side recognized that fear in members of the other racial group. Instead, when asked to explain the other people's reluctance to interact, participants in the study uniformly attributed it to a lack of interest. So people of both races use a double standard: They attribute one motivation to themselves and another to members of the other race.

"It's a clear take-home message: Look, you have fears; these other people have fears too. There's a misunderstanding here," said Shelton. "If you can just step outside yourself for a moment, then you would realize that the same thing that is inhibiting you is also inhibiting the other person. And if you think about that, maybe we all really could get along."

A causal connection

Reaching that conclusion was not a matter of a few simple questions on a survey. Shelton and Richeson built the idea over a series of six separate studies using students at Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts. The studies, each crosschecked and statistically analyzed in many ways, support each other with remarkable consistency and establish a causal connection between people's social perceptions and their subsequent behavior.

In another study, Shelton brought pairs of strangers, black and white Princeton undergraduates, into the lab to have conversations. She found that black people who expected their partners to be prejudiced put more energy into their conversations than did those with neutral expectations. This extra energy -- more smiling, greater focus -- resulted in both participants enjoying the interaction more than did those who went into the conversation with neutral expectations.

Shelton is now following up with another study that tracks more than 70 racially or ethnically mixed pairs of Princeton freshmen roommates. In addition to being surveyed about their experiences together, the roommates were asked to fill out diaries about their interactions for 15 days. Although she is still analyzing the data, Shelton said the results so far support her initial findings. "The more you are concerned about being the target of prejudice, the more you enjoy your interactions with your roommate," she said. However, she said, this positive effect may come at a cost: Minorities who put extra energy into interactions also report feeling less "true to themselves."

New realm of complexity

Such insights are an important advance, said Deborah Prentice, chair of the psychology department, be-cause they help take social psychology into a new realm of complexity. "We have a very rich understanding of the psychology of the perpetrator of prejudice and a somewhat less rich but growing understanding of the psychology of the target. What Nicole does is bring it together in social interaction," said Prentice.

"It's very difficult research to conduct, because you have to let people behave," Prentice continued. "Most of what social psychologists do is very structured. We put people in an incre-dibly structured situation and get a teeny snapshot, one small piece of a large puzzle. We assume that if you add up all the little snapshots, from dozens of studies, you get a complete picture. But I think that researchers are realizing that there are certain things you can't capture that way. It's not that the snapshots don't provide you very valuable information, but they don't aggregate up into a complete picture. There comes a point when you have all your bits of information and you really have to see how they play out when you just let people go, just let people behave and analyze their interaction as it unfolds."

Shelton has been refining her research methods since 1998 when she received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Virginia. She held a postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan's Research Center for Group Dynamics before coming to Princeton in 2000. She is now on a yearlong sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, where she is concentrating on analyzing the data and writing up the results from her many studies. When she returns this fall, she will continue her research and also resume her teaching, which spans introductory psychology to graduate courses. The University has selected her to receive the Laurence S. Brodie University Preceptorship in psychology for three years, starting July 1.

In both teaching and research, Shelton is motivated by a sense that understanding the dynamics of inter-actions between racial and ethnic groups is increasingly important as the United States becomes ever more multicultural. "There was a time when, to a certain extent, we couldn't interact and now we can," said Shelton. "Now we have to figure out how we are supposed to interact."

Related article
The price of prejudice: Interactions with minorities can sap mental capacity of highly biased people



April 28, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 25
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Page one
Shelton tells both sides of story in barrier-breaking research
The price of prejudice: Interactions with minorities can sap mental capacity of highly biased people
A prescription for change

Students explore creativity through collaboration
Tilghman co-chairs new state economic development commission
Lacrosse teammates a triple threat since middle school

Weiss was an award-winning poet, editor and literary critic

Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
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