Taking a deeper look at how people relate to each other


Emily Pronin is among a group of researchers in Princeton's Department of Psychology who study prejudice and discrimination. Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, considers questions of psychological bias and social perception, looking broadly at humans' unconscious partialities and how they influence decisions.

Photos: Brian Wilson

The psychological underpinnings of how different people relate to one another are important factors in better understanding major societal issues, ranging from race relations to international diplomacy. The University website features stories from the April 27, 2009, Princeton Weekly Bulletin profiling two faculty members in the Department of Psychology, Stacey Sinclair and Emily Pronin, whose research has advanced knowledge of how people react to and interact with others.

"They are both up-and-coming stars in social psychology, and their interests are overlapping," said Deborah Prentice, chair of the psychology department. "Both have appointments in other units on campus -- Stacey in the Center for African American Studies and Emily in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs -- so they illustrate psychology's connections with the broader intellectual community."

Probing the 'mystery' of bias perceptions

For those who consider their judgments fair and their thoughts rational, social psychologist Emily Pronin offers this piece of cautionary research: Most people think they're objective, but they're not.

Take, for example, physicians who are accused of skewing their patient-care decisions in order to support drug companies that give them free gifts, or judges who are accused of decisions that reflect personal friendships or political ideology. Though these individuals' biases may seem obvious to outsiders, those involved tend to claim objectivity, Pronin noted.

While some might doubt the sincerity of these individuals' claims of objectivity, Pronin's studies offer a different explanation for the discrepancy. She has found that individuals often recognize bias in other people but not in themselves. As her work has concluded, this "bias blind spot" is significant because it both prevents people from being objective, and also leads them to experience conflict with others, whether domestic strife between spouses or diplomatic discord between world leaders.

"This idea that basic psychological processes can have important social consequences really interests me," said Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs who came to the University in 2003.

Pronin's work contributes to a longstanding interest among her Princeton psychology colleagues in questions of psychological bias and social perception. While some of the faculty explore these questions by focusing on stereotypes or racial prejudice, Pronin looks broadly at humans' unconscious partialities and how they influence decisions.  

"Emily's work is at the center of our department's studies about human perception and decision-making," said John Darley, the Dorman T. Warren Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs. "What she has done is articulated individuals' failure to see themselves as biased and solved the mystery for why this happens."
In many studies, Pronin and collaborators have found that people tend to assume bias in others' actions but are slow to acknowledge how bias shapes their own views. Even when participants are told of this phenomenon, most will still claim to be less partisan than their peers.

What causes this dichotomy? According to Pronin's research, it is due to a basic aspect of cognition: People have access to their own thoughts and feelings, but not the thoughts and feelings of others. As a result, people tend to look inward to thoughts and feelings when judging their own bias, even while looking outward to actions for judging the bias of others. Because biases generally operate unconsciously, looking inward blinds people to their own biases, Pronin said.

"We know the thoughts, feelings and intentions behind our actions, and that knowledge can lead us to believe we are acting impartially. But because we don't have access to this information in other people's heads, we tend to assume they are biased when their actions look biased," Pronin explained.

In a May 2008 study co-written with psychology graduate student Kathleen Kennedy, Pronin found that people in disagreements have a tendency to think the other person is biased. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, measured the degree to which University students assumed bias in people expressing views on contentious issues. In one experiment, students read a mock interview with a college president about affirmative action, while in another they were presented with two fictitious students' opinions about a proposed grading policy. Pronin and Kennedy observed that the more a student disagreed with a presented viewpoint, the more bias they imputed to the person expressing the opinion.

"You think your view is objectively justifiable, and you have factual reasons for why it is correct. But if someone disagrees with you, you think it's because of their biases -- their ideology or their emotions are preventing them from viewing things in a fair way," Pronin said.

Further experimentation found that such biased perceptions often fuel arguments and conflict. This can have global consequences, Pronin said, citing as examples the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and fighting political factions in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

"Believing your adversaries are biased and that you are objective can lead groups to forgo negotiatory efforts in favor of more aggressive unilateral approaches," Pronin said. "I find it fascinating that we could potentially trace ongoing world problems to something as simple and obvious as the fact that 'I know my thoughts, but you do not.'"

Kennedy said working with Pronin has taught her how to "think like a scientist."

"Emily has done really compelling work to help understand where the bias blind spot comes from and, together, we've explored the ways it can potentially impact everyday interactions without people realizing it," said Kennedy, a fourth-year graduate student. "Among the many valuable lessons I've learned from her is perseverance -- not to give up when things don't quite go as expected -- and this has helped me become a successful and productive researcher."

Going forward, Pronin said she hopes to experiment with methods for overcoming the bias blind spot as a way to de-escalate disagreements.

Such work could help the master's in public affairs students that Pronin co-teaches in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs course "Psychology for Policy Analysis and Implementation," with Darley and other psychology faculty.

"The class translates what we know in psychology to what people need to know in order to be effective policymakers," Pronin said. "Princeton is a real trailblazer in picking up on the importance of psychology for public leaders."

Pronin said her joint appointment with the Woodrow Wilson School allows her to contribute to psychology's connection to the broader intellectual community at Princeton.

"I always want to make sure my work has one eye turned toward the real world," Pronin said.

This aim is seen in Pronin's other research, including her recent studies on how fast thinking influences mood and may contribute to mental disorders such as mania and depression. Scientific American and ABC News have highlighted Pronin's finding that people could improve their moods by undertaking activities that promote rapid thinking, such as completing crossword puzzles or brainstorming ideas.

Pronin first examined perceptions of bias as a graduate student at Stanford University, where she earned her Ph.D. in psychology in 2001. She extended her research to other topics, including effects of thought speed and perceptions of free will, while a psychology postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University from 2001 to 2003.

Her interest in the intersection of psychology and the public good dates to Pronin's undergraduate days at Yale University, where she earned a B.A. in psychology in 1996. Pronin worked in the laboratory of psychology professor Peter Salovey -- now Yale's provost -- who was using psychological principles to develop cancer prevention media campaigns, finding effective ways to encourage people to wear sunscreen or get regular mammograms.

"It's the type of research that I am still interested in today: It made a real impact on people's lives, and it was grounded in scientific evidence," Pronin said.

Sinclair in class

In addition to teaching a seminar this semester, "Social Stigma: On Being a Target of Prejudice," social psychologist Stacey Sinclair (left) is pursuing three main tracks of research related to ethnic and gender stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination of the self and others.

Exploring prejudice, stereotyping and the need to get along

If people want to change the attitudes of those around them, they can wear their beliefs on their sleeve -- literally, says social psychologist Stacey Sinclair.

Sinclair, who joined the Princeton faculty as an associate professor of psychology and African American studies in July, studies the way interpersonal contact relates to ethnic and gender stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination of the self and others. She is inspired by shared reality theory, which hypothesizes that individuals develop beliefs in common with others around them to create interpersonal bonds and to make themselves feel more certain.

One line of Sinclair's research shows that people's attitudes are influenced by the people they encounter, even briefly. For example, a woman wearing an anti-racism T-shirt may lessen the prejudicial views of the people who interact with her for a few minutes.

"Part of the point of our research is that they [ethnic and gender attitudes] are not as internal as you think," Sinclair said. "Who we are in terms of these attitudes is in part a function of whom we're around."

Sinclair, who taught at the University of Virginia from 1999 to 2008 after earning her Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles, said her studies began as a quest to understand ethnic and gender stereotyping and reduce it. She also wanted to understand the targets' perspective and to ameliorate the effects of being subjected to prejudice, she said.

At Princeton, Sinclair fits into a larger group of researchers in the psychology department who study prejudice and discrimination, including chair Deborah Prentice, professors Susan Fiske, Joel Cooper and John Darley, associate professor Nicole Shelton and assistant professor Emily Pronin (see accompanying story). In the future, Sinclair also may want to work with some of the department's experts in brain imaging to identify some of the physiological mechanisms involved in reducing prejudice, she said.

"I feel exceptionally fortunate to be in this great psychology department, particularly one that has a number of people working on related issues. We are all connected intellectually, but not overlapping," Sinclair said. "This makes it ripe for collaboration."

Sinclair is skilled in designing rigorous and compelling experiments for testing people's motivations, said Fiske, who studies how stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination are affected by social factors such as cooperation, competition and power.
"These kinds of lab experiments where people are interacting are hard to do and hard to do well," Fiske said. "Stacey fits the best Princeton traditions of designing compelling scenarios for people to interact in, and that pick up on real behavior. She's harnessing some of the fundamental motivations and showing how they can be used to improve intergroup interactions."

In addition to teaching a three-hour seminar this semester called "Social Stigma: On Being a Target of Prejudice," Sinclair is pursuing three main tracks of research.

Her work on how interpersonal contact affects attitudes shows that even fleeting interactions between individuals can have a major impact. In tests given after interaction with an experimenter, the participants in Sinclair's experiments responded with less prejudicial views or higher self-esteem after contact with experimenters wearing T-shirts with anti-racism statements or statements affirming a stigmatized group to which they belong. In repeat visits in which the experimenter was no longer wearing an affirmative message, the participants still showed higher self-esteem. Controls involved blank T-shirts and posters rather than people carrying the message.

Sinclair observing

Sinclair examines how interpersonal contact relates to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, with the belief that individuals often unconsciously develop beliefs in common with others to create interpersonal bonds and have smooth interactions. For instance, a person wearing a peace sign could contribute to pro-peace attitudes in the people with whom she interacts.

"It's not the message, it's not the room, it's the relationship with that person," Sinclair said.

Another line of Sinclair's research involves studying whether an individual's negative attitudes about one ethnic group can be transferred. In one experiment, white participants with high levels of prejudice toward African Americans also showed strong dislike of whites who interacted with African Americans.

"Our attitudes shape our interpersonal environment, so in addition to not wanting to interact with African Americans, [some white] people might be choosing like-minded people" as their friends, Sinclair said.

Sinclair's third line of research involves self-stereotyping, and shows that people often describe themselves and behave in a stereotypical fashion in order to get along better with others. For example, in one experiment, African Americans were shown a picture of a white man named David and told that they would be trying out for an academic team. Some were told that David was the team leader, while others were told that he also was trying out. David also was described to some as having characteristics that, according to pretesting with separate participants, hinted he might be biased against African Americans -- for example, he wanted to be a corporate lawyer. Others were told that he was interested in civil rights law and had other characteristics that hinted he might have more egalitarian views.

"What we found was if David had power over you and was 'corporate David,' the African Americans self-described as less smart," Sinclair said. "What was concerning was that you could make the argument that when [faced with] someone with stereotypical views, that's when African Americans might want to gear up and present themselves as smarter." Instead, she said, they act in a more self-effacing way to ensure a "smooth interaction."

Sinclair has several papers in the process of being published and continues to develop new experiments.

"Because the issue is so complex and my goal is to make things better, I can make things maybe a little better in my lifetime, but I don't think we'll solve anything," she said. "It will be a problem that we'll always be trying to solve."