Our work takes an experimental social cognitive approach to a variety of research topics. Social cognition is the study of how our thought processes influence our behavior. It's an approach within social psychology that grew out of the realization that people use the same mental structures and processes when perceiving and thinking about other people as they do when perceiving and thinking about objects. Object perception and cognition have long been of interest to cognitive psychologists, so social psychologists have benefitted greatly from applying cognitive theories and methodologies to the understanding of social perception. At the same time, because people are not objects, one must consider some of the many ways that social and non-social cognition typically differ. Social psychological researchers embraced these challenges.

Skin Tone Bias: Racial Phenotypicality Bias

Photos of men of color side by side

Many of us are familiar with vivid examples of racial bias — negative treatment exhibited toward various individuals belonging to different racial categories. Incidents of bias between members of the same racial category are much less familiar, particularly when that bias is based on race-related phenotypic appearance. Many refer to this phenomenon as skin tone bias; beliefs about, attitudes toward, and treatment of individuals based on phenotypic facial appearance (skin tone, hair texture, nose width, and lip fullness). Individuals with features that are more Afrocentric (dark skin tone, coarse hair, broad noses, and full lips) are perceived more negatively – and stereotypically – than individuals with less Afrocentric features. Skin tone bias emerges among a variety of racial and ethnic groups around the world. In these societies lighter skin has been and continues to be valued over darker skin with multiple consequences for social, economic, and physical health outcomes. Black Americans have been a central focus of research.

My interest in this topic began with a realization that within-race stereotyping has both similarities and differences with across-race stereotyping, but has been virtually ignored by social psychological researchers. A great deal of research in social psychology has explored the antecedents and consequences of racial bias. In contrast, relatively little work has examined the role of within-race variation in phenotypic appearance. That is, until recently. I’ve attempted to re-introduce this topic to social psychology with the expectation that increased empirical scrutiny can elucidate the processes underlying skin tone bias and suggest remedies to mitigate its impact.

Interplay of Racial and Spatial Categories in Memory

Map of the Boston area and surrounding towns and cities

Social categories, such as race, gender, and age play a similar role in organizing memory for people that spatial categories, such as cities, states, and countries play in organizing memory for environments. Specifically, two people or places that share category membership (same race or same state) are often perceived to be much more similar to one another than reality would dictate. Likewise, people or locations that do not share category membership are perceived to be much more distinct than reality would dictate. However, these research literatures have essentially proceeded in parallel with no intersection.

Social psychological researchers study the influence of social categories on social judgment and spatial cognition researchers study the influence of spatial categories on spatial judgment. We wondered to what extent social category information might influence one's learning and recollection of locations in a novel spatial environment. We are currently examining this issue in a series of experiments.

Confronting Bias

The experience of bias can have deleterious effects on social, psychological, and physical health outcomes. Those who recognize bias may choose to ignore it or confront it with the hopes of limiting its expression over time. Ironically, those who claim to have been the victims of bias experience backlash, leading to negative interpersonal outcomes and even dismissal of their claims. Anticipation of these outcomes can discourage victims and their allies from speaking out, perpetuating the expression of bias. We are currently exploring ways in which this backlash might be mitigated, with the goal of improving interpersonal evaluations as well as legitimizing claims of discrimination.
A man yelling at another man with a bull horn

Encouraging Interracial Dialogue

Women of color sitting around a conference room table
Through dialogue, individuals in conflict learn about the relevant issues, seek to understand each other's perspective, and work together toward productive solutions. However, such dialogues often fail to realize this potential—particularly when it comes to race. For a variety of reasons, people of different racial groups are generally reluctant to initiate interracial dialogue to discuss discrimination, and often these discussions end with each "side" feeling unheard, misunderstood, rejected, and unlikely to make future attempts to engage. In efforts to encourage interracial dialogue, a problem we face is that these interactions can be anxiety provoking. This anxiety can be an impediment to interaction. In a recent paper (Schultz, Gaither, Urry, & Maddox, 2015), we demonstrated that an intervention crafted with an emotion regulation strategy in mind was effective in getting White participants to overcome anticipated anxiety and choose to interact with a Black partner to discuss race relations when compared to a control condition where no intervention was present. In other words, we were able to get White participants to engage in a dialogue that they would have otherwise avoided. This work represents similar promise for future investigation and application by leveraging models of emotion regulation to provide individuals with encouragement and empowerment in the context of interracial dialogue.
Similarly, humor can potentially alleviate anxiety associated with engaging in interracial dialogue.  In a recent review, Borgella, Howard, & Maddox (2019) explored the potential for humor associated with racial groups maybe be able to introduce topics related to racial discrimination in a way that encourages dialogue and minimizes avoidance. Current work in the lab explores how and when humor related to race is perceived as funny, and to what extent it can facilitate prosocial behavior.