Social Psychologist Consciously Experiments with Unconscious Attitudes
A central theme in social psychology is that people’s perceptions and behavior often are shaped by factors outside their awareness and can’t be fully understood by intuitive methods such as self-reflection. By experimentally investigating how mental processes unconsciously influence attitudes, beliefs and behavior, an important window into mental life has been opened. Assistant professor Nilanjana Dasgupta is examining how the culture in which people live shapes their overt and covert judgments and behavior toward ingroups (social groups to which they belong) and outgroups (social groups to which they don’t belong).
“Broad questions guide my research,” Dasgupta explains. “To what extent are intergroup stereotypes passively imprinted in peoples’ minds because they live in a culture where some groups are more valued than others? What is the relationship between explicit (conscious) and implicit attitudes? Can people be consciously egalitarian yet unconsciously biased? Do unconscious prejudices and stereotypes remain confined to private thoughts, or do they spill over into behavior toward outgroups? To the extent that unconscious prejudice and stereotypes bypass conscious mental processes such as awareness, control and intention to do harm, they can’t be easily erased by classic attitude change techniques that are dependent on people’s awareness and motivation not to be biased—so does that mean subtle biases are stable and resistant to change?”
And now, funded with a $400,500 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, Dasgupta will be investigating what enhances or constrains female students in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She will use the funding to test a model she has developed to explore the subject of gender disparity in STEM-related education. Dasgupta explains, “I’ll be studying how implicit/unconscious stereotypes affect people’s affinity for (or aversion to) certain types of academic and professional paths compared to others—how seemingly free choices students and adults make about their professional/intellectual lives are subtly but powerfully shaped by societal stereotypes.”
For thirty years a national debate has been brewing about the scarcity of women in STEM and its grave implications for the American workforce. Starting in middle school and continuing through college, girls and women often perform less well than boys and men on standardized tests in science and mathematics. Even when they perform equally well, girls and women often feel less confident than their male peers about their ability in these disciplines and are less likely to pursue STEM majors and professions in the future. The reasons for sex disparity in STEM are hotly debated. Some researchers suggest that there are innate sex differences in cognitive abilities while others point to sociocultural explanations such as gender-related stereotypes of STEM in schools, colleges, and in testing situations. Evidence from several sources suggests that the unequal distribution of females and males in STEM is driven by the dynamic interplay between societal stereotypes and students’ own attitudes instead of stable biological forces. A critical source of societal stereotypes is likely to be the educational environment in which STEM is learned.
Three research questions emerge from Dasgupta’s proposed theoretical model. First, does the gender composition of STEM-related educational environments (e.g., the low proportion of female peers, teachers and experts) create STEM stereotypes such that these disciplines become increasingly associated with maleness instead of remaining gender neutral? Second, do individual differences in acquisition of such stereotypes predict female students’ attitudes toward STEM, psychological identification with STEM, performance and academic choices? Third, can changes in the gender composition of academic environments attenuate STEM stereotypes and enhance women’s liking for, identification with, and participation in STEM?
“I work very closely with students who are critical collaborators in all the work I do,” Dasgupta says. “Undergraduate students in my lab typically work closely with my graduate students—they help collect data, recruit participants, and if they are deeply interested in social psychology they might use this first research assistantship as a launching pad to doing an honors thesis.” Two are currently doing honors work with her.
At Smith College as an undergraduate, Dasgupta started off as a biology major. She took a psychology class to “round out my liberal arts education and became fascinated with the idea that human thought and behavior can actually be studied in a scientific way.” Social psychology has a unique way of demonstrating through experiments how peoples’ intuitive understanding of themselves and others are often resoundingly wrong. Trying to combine biology and psychology, Dasgupta ended up with a psychology major and a neuroscience minor. “The options in 1992 weren’t what they are today. Social cognitive neuroscience, as we now know it, didn’t exist.”
“I was exposed to a lot of excellent minds and had many mentors throughout my education, beginning with my mother, a physiology professor, and my grandmother, a writer and social critic. At Smith and then at Yale where I earned my PhD I learned to think deeply, to turn ideas around in my head, and not to be a narrow intellectual. Thinking broadly, reading broadly (both inside and outside of psychology, both fiction and nonfiction), and having interests and hobbies beyond one’s discipline make a big difference in who one is as a person.
Dasgupta, who joined UMass Amherst in 2003 after a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, praises her departmental colleagues. “They are smart and fun and immense sources of support. And I am eager to engage with people across departments intellectually and socially. I would never have been able to get the NSF funding without the help of colleagues in the sciences who gave me a better understanding of the dynamics in their classrooms, their perceptions of how students feel, who succeeds and doesn’t, and so on. I’m all for connecting people across the disciplines.
April 14, 2006