Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 2

3 Mar

Here at Law & Mind, we are having a great time blogging about different areas of psychological research and its implications for the law. While the key to Law & Mind is both law and mind, today I want to focus only on mind sciences. Specifically, I want to take a look at three psychologists who have been researching fascinating issues. Here they are . . . .

1. Serena Chen, University of California – Berkeley, Department of Psychology

Dr. Chen focuses her research on self and identity. She wants to understand how our conceptions of self change and adapt, particularly in light of social contexts. In her view, identity is fundamental to our understanding our cognitive processes and interaction. She argues that “merging social cognition with the self, close relationships, and intergroup relations is useful because it highlights the fundamentally social nature of perceiving, interpreting, judging, and behaving.”

Professor Chen studies the psychology of the self

When examining questions of identity and social relationships, Dr. Chen also encounters “power asymmetries”: relations where one party exercises more power over the other. She wants to understand the “conitive, motivational, and behavioral effects of power.” This entails looking at “both personality and situational variables.” Tying identity into the equation, Dr. Chen has examined how self-constructs and individual differences can moderate the effects of situational power.

To further explore her research, I read Relationship Orientation as a Moderator of the Effects of Social Power, which Chen co-authored with Annette Y. Lee-Chai and John Bargh. In this article, Chen investigated how individual associations with power can affect behavior. The study described three experiments designed to test this hypothesis. I want to focus on the first one. In this experiment, the authors had students take a test that rated them for proclivity to either a “communal” or “exchange” orientation. “Communalists . . . benefit one another in response to each other’s needs.” Members in “exchange relationships,” however, “benefit one another with the specific expectation of receiving comparable benefits in return.”

The first study investigated the relationship between outlook and associations with power using two techniques. First, students were divided into two groups and “primed”: one group was shown 6 words associated with power (i.e., authority, boss, control, executive, influence, and rich) and 4 words unrelated to power (e.g., clock, house); the other group was shown 10 words unrelated to power. The students were then asked to select 5 of 10 exercises to complete–they were told another person (who had not yet arrived, supposedly) would complete the other 5. The study found that “priming the concept of power would . . . activate responsibility goals for communalists, leading them to take greater part of the experimental burden on themselves relative to communals who were not primed with power.” For exchangers, though, the results were different: “power-primed exchangers tended to behavior more in line with their own interests, choosing fewere minutes for themselves as compared with exchangers who were not primed, presumably due to the activation of self-interest goals among the former group.”

Although the article conducted two other tests, this study alone provides some interesting results. It illustrates how an individual’s identity and outlook can change the way they respond to situational factors, such as power. A strong situational factor, power can influence people in a different ways. In other words, the individual and power are not stand alone factors; they interact with one another. As, Chen et al. note:

these data clearly suggest . . . [t]hat . . . power is a situational variable[;] [it] interacts with person variables–in our case, a chronic relationship orientation–to bring about different cognitive, motivational, and behavioral responses depending, at least in part, on the nature of the perceptual concepts and goal concepts people associate with power.

Further, the authors note that this happens automatically, without our knowledge. We aren’t aware of the power-goal activation (at least where power-goal is not at the forefront of our mind). It just happens–and it happens in the context of social relations with others. Yet another example of situational factors mediating with individual preferences to produce certain outcomes.

2. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University, Department of Psychology

Professor Banaji concentrates her research on unconscious thoughts and feelings. Specifically, she is interested in how unconscious processes can influence our behavior. Although Professor Banaji’s work is robust, I focus on one particular

Dr. Banaji has made waves by researching "implicit associations"

aspect. Keeping in the theme of self and identity, I picked up one of Banaji’s articles from 2003 entitled, Implicit Self and Identity. In it she and Thierry Devos explore how unconscious processes and outside factors (such as group membership) influence our conceptions of identity. She notes there are a several ways in which factors can influence us without us being aware of the influence:

one may be unaware of the existence of the source of influence, whereas in other circumstances one may consciously and accurately perceive the source of influence while being unaware of its causative role in self-evaluation.

Put another way, we can know about a force exerting influence, but be unaware–or even deny–that it actually influences us. Much of the article is a summary of prior research–explaining experiments showing how we frequently identify with social groups; they are part of “who we are.” In particular, individuals’ strong preference for a group frequently means they prefer that group over others. This creates the ingroup-outgroup phenomenon. Notions of the self then become linked with ingroup–its beliefs, its practices, its archetype.

But there is more to the picture. Individuals frequently unconsciously evaluate themselves, and do so in relation to schemas already constructed in their brains. Implicit attitudes about the self can be influenced by the social context in which the person makes a self-evaluation. When making a judgment about reading and math ability, for example, Asian women differed in their assessments depending on whether they were primed to think about their own identity (p.  189). Other contextual factors, such as positive/negative feedback, also can influence our own self-evaluations.

These are not the only factors influencing identity. Banaji walks through several others–performance and behavior, goal pursuits and self-motives, cultural and societal foundations, implicit and explicit self-concept. The point of the post isn’t to walk through all of these but, rather, to introduce a piece of Professor Banaji’s scholarship. Her work focuses on implicit associations: the unconscious attitudes we hold about various stuff. With respect to identity, Banaji demonstrates that who we are depends in part on a variety of social and cultural factors. These factors influence how we process information, see the world, and, ultimately, define ourselves.

3. John Bargh, Department of Psychology, Yale University

At Yale University, Professor Bargh focuses his research, like Banaji, on unconscious pyschological processes. What I find refreshing is his acknowledgement that his research touches on the “issue of free will, and how much of it do individuals have.” As this video depicts, this has been a controversial stance.

Despite the controversy, Professor Bargh has been a leader in showing how our minds work without our awareness. Much of his work has been devoted to exploring the “unconscious bias”: the focus on unconscious processes to explain behavior. This, of course, also touches on questions of consciousness and reasoning. That is, although the Freudian notion of the unconscious was not entirely accurate, our unconscious processes can influence our actions and conscious thoughts. Professor Bargh wants to know how.


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