Social Identity and Cognition
Humans have many dynamic and overlapping social identities, and the salience of these identities shifts from one situation to another. Indeed, the mere act of assigning people to groups is sufficient to evoke identification with fellow ingroup members and discrimination that favors ingroup over outgroup members. This intergroup discrimination occurs in the absence of any factors typically posited to account for intergroup bias, such as stereotypes, prior contact with group members or competition over resources (Tajfel, 1970). Moreover, when a given social identity is salient, people are more likely to perceive themselves and others as interchangeable exemplars of a social category rather than unique individuals. Our research explores how this process of self-categorization colors social perceptions and evaluations of the self and others in line with the values and contents associated with the current social identity (Turner, Oakes, Haslam, & McGarty, 1994).
Our latest research explores the effects of self-categorization and social identity on cognition — from low-level perception and evaluation to social memory – across multiple levels-of-analysis. For example, we have assigned participants to a mixed-race team to test whether social perception and evaluation reflect the current relevant social identity even when other social categories are visually and socially salient. This research has shown that although racial biases are normally automatically activated, this process is not inevitable, and people can flexibly (and automatically) categorize and evaluate others according to other social dimensions, including the most minimal of social identities. We are currently extending this work to explore the effects of social identity on attention, perception, memory, consciousness, awareness and behavior, and trying to identify the neural mediators of these processes. We believe these studies will not only extend our understanding of social identity but may change our understanding of the social brain.
Social Categories and Psychophysiology
There is extensive evidence of racial disparities in health, including evidence that African Americans suffer from cardiovascular problems relative to Caucasian Americans. Although this issue has largely been considered from a medical perspective, my collaborators and I are interested in exploring whether social factors such as the perception of threat inherent in interracial contexts may play a role in producing these disparities. We are especially interested in the role of social identity in generating these disparities, and whether changing cognitions can reduce perceived threat and therefore attenuate racial disparities in cardiovascular responses.
The causes and consequences of moral construal
Models of moral decision-making generally propose a multistage process: the first involves determining that a situation is morally-relevant and that it should be evaluated in moral terms (moral construal); the second involves the application of moral decision-rules or reasoned principles to the situation in order to determine the morally right or wrong course of action (moral judgment). Most psychological research on morality has examined the second of these steps, confronting naïve participants with moral dilemmas, and on the basis of their reactions making inferences about the nature of the decision-rules and reasoning processes that are applied to situations deemed morally relevant. However, if moral construal and judgment are separable, a particular behavior or course of action may be evaluated in both moral and non-moral terms. This is important, in part, because it helps to account for a particular type of moral failure, in which people make immoral decisions not because they intend to do so, but because they fail to recognize the moral implications of a course of action. Hannah Arendt famously described the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as embodying the ‘banality of evil’, meaning that Eichmann had given no consideration to the moral implications of his actions, and had participated in the killing of many thousands of Jews for purely pragmatic reasons. My collaborators and I are currently examining the flexibility of moral construal. Initial studies indicate that people can process and evaluate a host of issues according to moral standards and that moral processes may lead to systematic biases in decision-making and behavior, including extremism.
The psychology of hate
Throughout human history, the most heinous and heroic acts have been committed in the service of morality. It is therefore unsurprising that philosophers and scientists have long argued that hate stems from moral values (Aristotle, 350 BCE). Despite the immense theoretical and real-world significance of hate, there have been very few studies on the psychological underpinnings of hate, and none to determine whether hate differs from basic negative attitudes (i.e., dislike). To address this paucity of research, my collaborators and I have been conducting a series of studies to determine whether hate is quantitatively and/or qualitatively different from dislike. Our initial research indicates that hated people, objects and issues are not only more negative, but they are also more strongly associated with moral beliefs and emotions (e.g., contempt) and less strongly associated with empathy than disliked targets. Our initial research also suggests that hate motivates individuals to act destructively in the service of their moral beliefs or ideology. We are currently exploring whether hate is associated with destructive approach-related motivations whereas dislike is associated with avoidance-related motivations.
“If social scientists choose to select rigorous theory as their ultimate goal, as have the natural scientists, they will succeed to the extent they traverse broad stretches of time and space. That means nothing less than aligning their explanations with those of the natural sciences.” – E. O. Wilson (1998)
My lab takes a multi-level approach to human psychology, blending theory and methods from social psychology and affective neuroscience. This approach is based on the assumption that complex social phenomena are best understood by combining social and biological theory and methods (Cacioppo, Berntson, Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000). This approach involves breaking phenomena like social perception and evaluation into component processes to better understand the operating characteristics of these components and how they work in concert. Analyzing these phenomena across multiple levels-of-analysis offers the promise of developing more general, process-oriented theories of human cognition and developing novel interventions for pressing social issues.
The NYU Department of Psychology is ideally equipped to conduct research using a social and affective neuroscience approach. The Department of Psychology, in collaboration with the Center for Brain Imaging, offers lab space for conducting behavioral studies (including social cognition protocols), several electroencephalography (EEG) systems (including high-density 128-channel EEG), eye-tracking capabilities and a Siemens Allegra 3T head-only scanner. Students also have access to an imaging lab outfitted with four Linux machines that have all the current post processing software and programs needed for neuroscience analysis and regular in-house training seminars on cutting-edge data collection and analysis techniques in cognitive neuroscience.