Research Lead: Social Psychology


Wealth and Unethical Behavior: Understanding the Relationship Between Social Class and Moral Decision-making

[Economic & Social Psychology]

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis left a bitter taste in the cultural imagination, a sense that the rich and powerful don’t play by the same rulebook as everyone else. Recent experiments¹ have suggested that there is in fact some truth to this idea, finding that higher social class—defined by education and wealth—predicts unethical decision making. Behavioral scientists David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky reaffirmed this finding in their March 2015 paper, but they also identified situations in which the reverse was true.

It’s important, they argue in their series of six studies, to keep “selfish” conceptually distinct from “unethical” when evaluating moral decisions. For instance, one student could lie to avoid getting in trouble, while another could lie to help a friend avoid getting caught for cheating; both students act unethically, but only one acts solely in her self-interest. The researchers found that people of a higher social class were more likely to behave unethically when they would personally benefit. By way of contrast, people in a lower social class acted unethically when individuals other than themselves stood to gain. In other words, wealth predicted selfishness rather than unethical behavior per se.

This study did not ascertain causality, which is to say there’s no reason to believe that being wealthy makes you selfish, nor that selfish people become wealthy. Instead, these results add an important caveat to the research on class and morality: both upper class and lower class people can do unethical things, but the reasons and contexts in which it occurs likely differ between the two groups. This has important public policy implications, suggesting that it can pay dividends to know your audience when trying to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules.

1: Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. PNAS, 109, 4086–4091 (pdf).


Chronic Stereotype Threat and Blindness: Coping With More Than Lack of Sight

[Social Psychology]

Much is known about about how stereotype threat — the fear of behaving in a way which confirms a negative stereotype about one’s social group — undermines performance for a particular group in a particular situation, women and math for instance. Much less is known, however, about how stereotypes might threaten individuals over time and what the impact of this constant threat might be.

In a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Arielle Silverman and Geoffrey Cohen examined the degree to which people with a permanent physical disability, in this case blindness, felt a chronic level of stereotype threat and to what extent that threat affected their self-integrity, well-being, their level of employment, and their willingness to confront potentially stereotype-threatening situations.

In the first of two studies, Silverman and Cohen surveyed 497 blind adults and found that those with higher levels of perceived stereotype threat had lower well-being, higher levels of stress, were more likely to be unemployed, and were less willing to take on new challenges. Critically, Silverman and Cohen found that these life outcomes were mediated by an individual’s level of self-integrity — the perception of oneself as adequate and in control of important life outcomes.

Building off these results and their previous research, in their second study Silverman and Cohen hypothesized that for blind individuals, a values-affirmation intervention — a writing exercise in which an individual writes about personally important values — might help boost self-integrity thereby reducing threat and creating more positive life outcomes. The authors administered the values-affirmation writing intervention to adult students at a school for the blind. One month after the intervention, students who had written about personally important values were rated as progressing further on measures of attitude and course performance by their instructors, when compared with the students who had only completed a control writing task.

Overall, Silverman and Cohen suggest that chronic stereotype threat can harm self-integrity by leading individuals to avoid potentially stereotype-threatening situations, which can then negatively impact well-being, stress, employment, and lead to further avoidance of threatening situations. To break this cycle, they suggest bolstering an individual’s self-integrity, in this case through a values-affirmation exercise. Finally, the authors point out that the effects of a physical disability are not just physical, but psychological as well. To fully address the challenges people with a disability continuously face, they suggest it is both beneficial and critical to incorporate appropriate psychological interventions into therapy.


Informal Biases Impede Women and Minorities at “Pathways“ Leading into Academia


Photo: Sakeeb Sabakka

[Social & Organizational]

Although there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities face discrimination in higher levels of academia, a new study suggests that the unequal treatment exists before students even apply to doctoral programs. A working paper published on the Social Science and Research Network by Katherine Milkman et al. investigated if women and minorities experience less support in early, informal processes leading up to the decision to apply to graduate school programs. They found that women and minorities face greater difficulty in getting an email response from professors when inquiring about research opportunities for doctoral programs, and even more so from higher paid professors and those at top universities.

The researchers sent emails to 6,548 tenure-track and tenured professors at 259 top U.S. institutions across 109 academic disciplines. The emails were sent from fictional prospective doctoral students seeking a meeting to discuss research opportunities in the professor’s lab. Emails contained identical messages with the only variable being the name of the student–chosen to imply a gender and/or ethnicity*.

Milkman et al. found that professors, despite their own gender, race, or ethnic background, were more likely to respond to an email from a white male over an email from a female or a black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese student. However, Chinese professors exhibited less of a bias against Chinese students. Most academic disciplines, including almost all natural sciences, overwhelmingly replied more frequently to white males; the greatest disparity existed in business with 87% of white males receiving a response versus just 62% of female and minority students. The exception was in fine arts where reverse bias presented itself in favor of women and minorities. In addition, the researchers found that academics of private universities and those of higher pay grades were the least responsive — for every $13,000 increase in salary, response rate to women and minorities decreased by 5 percent in comparison to white males.

This study highlights barriers that women and minorities may face as they try to enter into academia, and raises important research questions about why bias might occur at the “pathways” leading to the Academy. Future work will look to answer why the diversity of an institution doesn’t necessarily alleviate discrimination, as well as why an individual’s level of pay can impact levels of discrimination.

*Sample of names used in study: Claire Smith (white female), Brad Anderson (white male), Latoya Smith (black female), Lamar Washington (black male), Gabriella Rodriguez (Hispanic female), Carlos Lopez (Hispanic male), Sonali Desai (Indian female), Raj Singh (Indian male), Ling Wong (Chinese female), Dong Lin (Chinese male)


To be Respected or Liked? How the goal to be respected or be liked influences a woman’s response to sexism

[Social Psychology]

In the workplace, women frequently have to choose between being respected or being liked, with professional achievement often coming at the expense of social acceptance. The dilemma that women face between being liked or respected is especially apparent in cases of sexual harassment. In their recent article, “Goal Preference Shapes Confrontations of Sexism,” published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Robyn Mallett and Kala Melchiori examined how a woman’s goal of being respected or being liked related to how she responded to sexism.

Mallett and Melchiori administered mock interviews through a computerized instant message format. Female participants took on the role of interviewee and within the interview were asked either sexist (“Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?”) or inappropriate (“Do people find you morbid?”) questions by a supposed male interviewer. At the conclusion of the interview, participants were asked to report their preference for being respected versus being liked.

Mallett and Melchiori found that the more a woman prefered to be respected rather than liked, the more likely she was to respond assertively to sexist interview questions. Important to note however, and in line with past work, the researchers also found that the majority of responses to the sexist interview questions were non-confrontational, suggesting that even if a women is seeking respect, assertiveness in the face of sexism is the “exception rather than the rule.” The authors further point out that their results raise questions with how the United States’  reasonable person standard is applied to sexual harassment cases. Though many people may assume the reasonable reaction to sexual harassment would be an immediate and assertive response, the current work illustrates that this may in fact be an unreasonable expectation.

“Intuitive Prosociality”


Many theories of human prosociality suggest human beings must exert reflective-control over selfish impulses in order to behave prosocially. However, new evidence from three areas of psychology research, reviewed by Jamil Zaki and Jason Mitchell in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggests prosociality may be an impulse in its own right. More specifically, evidence from decision-making, neuroscience, and developmental psychology demonstrates that prosocial behaviors and preferences often follow patterns of intuitive psychological processes, rather than control-oriented processes. The decision-making evidence illustrates the automatic qualities of prosocial choices, such as faster decision times when making prosocial choices versus selfish ones. Neuroscience research reveals control-related brain systems are rarely activated when people make prosocial decisions, with the automatic reward-system more likely to be engaged. Finally, developmental research shows that young children, often exhibit prosocial behaviors such as spontaneous helping, despite having not yet developed reflective control over their behavior. Given this evidence, Zaki and Mitchell support an intuitive-model of prosociality, and posit, ”Prosocial acts, instead of requiring control over selfish impulses, may represent a class of intuition in and of themselves.”


“Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping”


Does an individual’s status affect the kind of help he or she will likely be offered? New research, published in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests it does. In a series of four experiments, Arie Nadler and Lily Chernyak-Hai examined the relationship between a help-seeker’s status*, the type of help people chose to give, and the perceptions of those seeking help. The first three experiments revealed that participants were more likely to offer low status help-seekers the answer to the problem (dependency-oriented help), while they were more likely to offer high-status help-seekers the tools to solve the problem (autonomy-oriented help).

Why the difference in helping behavior? Nadler and Chernyak-Hai found that participants were more likely to attribute the need for help by low-status individuals to internal, more permanent causes, like low ability or low motivation. However, participants were more likely to attribute the need for help by high-status individuals to more temporary circumstances, like a lapse in concentration. Moreover, help seeking behavior was perceived as a sign of weakness in low-status individuals, but as a sign of strength in high-status individuals. The relationship between status and helping behavior is malleable however. The fourth experiment demonstrated that perceptions of individuals can change depending on whether a low or high status individual requests autonomy or dependency-oriented help.

Lastly, the authors found that an important factor in the type of help provided is the helper’s identification with the help-seeker**. Overall, these results reveal how status can affect helping behavior and the perception of those who seek help. This research has broad implications for social-welfare programs that often face support or opposition based on varying arguments of why individuals need help.

*Status was defined by: performance on a problem-solving task (Experiment 1), socioeconomic status (Exp. 2 and 4), and scholastic achievement (Exp. 3).

**The majority of participants in the study were identified as medium or medium-high SES individuals, and the authors point to the need for further research to better understand how different status combinations of helpers and help-seekers affects the type of help given and the attributions of why the help is needed.


“Predicting ethnic and racial discrimination: A meta-analysis of IAT criterion studies”

[Social & Methodological Psychology]

The creation of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in 1998, sparked a new wave of theory and research focused on understanding people’s implicitly held attitudes and beliefs, and how those implicit attitudes and beliefs might affect behavior. One of most researched topics using IAT methodology is racial and ethnic discrimination. Employing the IAT, many researchers seemed to uncover implicit biases and prejudices that explicit measures, specifically because they were explicit, could not uncover. However, a new meta analysis, by Oswald et al. revealed the IAT to be a poor predictor of racial or ethnic discriminatory attitudes and behavior, and in fact no better than an explicit measure. Given these results, Oswald et al. question the construct validity of the IAT, and in turn its ability to predict actual behavior. These new findings raise significant questions about psychology and other domains widespread use and application of IAT based results, specifically with regard to racial and ethnic discrimination, and have broad implications for the legal system that has made significant use of the IAT since its inception 15 years ago.