Buju Dasgupta is the winner of the 2016 Application of Personality and Social Psychology Award. SPSP spoke with Buju about her research findings, how they have been applied, and how she decides which research questions to tackle. She also discussed how social and personality psychology research and application can be used to help change the world, her advice for those who want to use their degrees in an applied way, and much more. A few highlights from the interview are below (about a 5 minute read). For greater detail, you can access the full interview (about a 20 minute read).

SPSP:  Much of your research focuses on identifying circumstances in which implicit prejudice and stereotypes can be changed. Could you describe some of your research findings, and how they have been or could be applied?

Buju: In our early studies, we found that, on average, most of our participants tended to show strong implicit favoritism towards White Americans and, relatively speaking, bias against African Americans. But if we put them in a lab situation where they first saw pictures and read little biographies of well-known and highly admired African Americans, and then we measured their implicit attitudes towards White and Black people, we found that implicit race bias was substantially reduced.

In later studies, we tried similar interventions using famous and accomplished gays and lesbians, and we found similar outcomes. People who saw and read biographies of gay men and lesbians who were out and had made major contributions to society, later on showed less anti-gay bias when we measured their implicit attitudes towards gay and straight people, than others who saw nothing at all. Across multiple studies we’ve found this kind of implicit bias reduction for racial/ethnic minority groups, for sexual minorities, and for women in leadership roles.

From these studies, we then expanded into naturally existing real world situations. For example, with the sexual orientation studies, in addition to showing people pictures and stories in the lab, we also asked them how many people they knew personally who were gay or lesbian, and how well they knew them. We found a nice correlation: people who knew more individuals who were gay or lesbian whom they knew well, not as acquaintances, but as close friends, family members, or coworkers, tended to show less anti-gay bias than others who didn’t have any gay or lesbian individuals in their close social network.

So both laboratory research and correlational field research pointed to the conclusion that even though, on average, people may have strong implicit biases against groups that are disadvantaged, either media exposure or real-world contact with admired people from those groups can actually reduce implicit bias. And we have some evidence suggesting that that reduction in bias lingers for a little while after positive exposure is done but lingers for longer if positive exposure continues.

Another research area, where a lot of my research focuses now, is on implicit stereotypes about who is good at what profession and how that affects individuals’ own academic and professional choices. Past research on social identity threat has shown that stereotypes sometimes get internalized. People may self-select out of academic pathways where their own group is negatively stereotyped, simply because they feel like they don’t belong or don’t feel confident in their ability.

My interest is in developing theory-driven interventions (I call them “social vaccines”) that inoculate people against identity threat. My students and I test our theory and allied interventions in the context of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM fields). We’ve found that when we create the right circumstances in STEM environments that increase women’s exposure to same-sex experts or peers, they show a greater sense of belonging in science, tech, and engineering, more confidence in their ability, less anxiety, and more interest in pursuing careers in STEM fields post-graduation. We find these benefits in multi-year rigorously controlled field experiments, quasi-experimental studies conducted in real classrooms, and traditional lab experiments. Sometimes the “social vaccines” are women professors in STEM; at other times social vaccines are same-sex peers in work teams or same-sex peer mentors in engineering.    

In a recent study that has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences we found that when we paired incoming women entering engineering majors with a female peer mentor…, who was a senior in the same major, rather than a male peer mentor or no mentor, being in a mentoring relationship for one year with someone like them – with another woman – preserved their sense of belonging and confidence in engineering and reduced worries and anxiety. Amazingly, women in the group with a female peer mentor were retained in engineering majors at 100%, compared to those in the control condition where the retention rate was 89%, or those with a male peer mentor where the retention rate was 82%.

See Buju’s full answer.

SPSP: How would you advise someone who wants to use their degree in an applied way, but maybe is struggling with the best way to go about it, and wondering which path to go down?

Buju: The training to think scientifically, and the basic analytical skills that science training gives individuals is really important. Science training teaches that we need evidence to know what works, what is true, and differentiate it from anecdotes or intuition that is not supported by hard evidence.  Absent evidence, we may have a hypothesis or a hunch or intuition, but it’s not the same as truth or reality.

We need social and personality psychologists all over the place – to be involved in organizations, to use data and psychological science to design new policies, and to modify policies that may not have evidence to back it up. (Or maybe the evidence actually points in the wrong direction.)

We need well-trained social-personality psychologists in businesses, to inform K-12 education, in tech companies, in work around climate change education and mitigation strategies. We need social-personality psychologists in many different domains in public life.

I am glad that as a field, we are becoming less insistent that our Ph.D.s go into academia only, because we need to spread the wealth more, and use our graduates’ talent to have a large impact in public life. The best way to do that is by encouraging our graduates who are interested in applying their degrees in social and personality psychology to non-academic spheres to use their degrees to understand social phenomena in real world, develop and test interventions where necessary, use our training to improve education, businesses and group functioning, conflict reduction, and inform policy-making.

In terms of career advice, I would say to try to acquire non-academic opportunities in graduate school, probably over the summers, to connect social and personality psychology research to something that is of interest to you in a different professional context. It does require juggling back and forth between doing your research at your home institution and fulfilling your coursework, while at the same time being on the lookout for ways to learn how social-personality psychology is applicable in some non-academic setting.

See Buju’s full answer.

SPSP: Why else do you think applied work is valuable for social-personality psychologists as individuals, and for the field as a whole? I know we’ve kind of touched on that – is there anything you’d like to add?

Buju: I’ll add that sometimes I think there is the misperception that the application only goes in one direction. That you do excellent rigorous science in the lab, and then you apply the lessons from it out there in the field. But what I’ve learned from my research is that the relation between theory and application is bi-directional.

Sometimes the data I’ve collected from the field has actually changed or modified my proposed theory. I’ve gone in with one set of hypotheses based on my theory or model that’s been informed by my basic laboratory research, but when I’ve tested it in the field, sometimes the findings look a little bit different. And then I’m in a position to compare my lab studies and field studies and say, “Okay, what is this difference? Is this difference real that requires theory modification, or is it some messiness in the measurement or a difference in the sample, or something else?”

In other cases, by doing research out in the field I learned something new about the phenomenon I’m interested in that I hadn’t quite considered or perhaps articulated explicitly that’s really important in my theory. That’s another way in which field research improves theory-building.

See Buju’s full answer.

The Application of Personality and Social Psychology Award is a senior career award that honors a social or personality psychologist who has applied theoretical and/or empirical psychological discoveries and advances to the understanding and improvement of important practical problems across his or her career. Nominations for this award, and for many other SPSP awards, are open now through June 1. If you know a colleague who would be a great candidate for an award or would like to nominate yourself, you can learn more