For much of my life I was enthralled with dance and theatre, and my role models were great choreographers (like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins). Growing up, I was interested in the arts much more so than science. What changed my mind? I went back to school in my 30s and fell into John Fleming’s lab at the University of Minnesota. His advisor was John Darley at Princeton, a brilliant social psychologist who takes a dramaturgical approach to studying human behavior. Behind Fleming’s desk was a sign reading, “Let’s Construct Reality” – and that is what we did. We carefully crafted various social situations to test if people’s responses would reflect theoretical predictions. I felt right at home because it was like doing theatre, but with numbers. And I caught the research bug immediately when the numbers supported our predictions. (I have since learned that research is even more interesting when they do not.) I had many outstanding mentors at Minnesota, including Gene Borgida, who became my graduate advisor, Marti Hope Gonzales, Bill Fox, Ellen Berscheid, and Mark Snyder.
My research interests in prejudice and stereotyping developed in graduate school, but I always tell people that had I known about social psychology in grade school, I would have signed up then and there. Having grown up during the Civil Rights era, when prejudices toward Blacks and women were being questioned and fought against, I experienced the dramatic “before and after” differences that social movements can make. The challenge now is to prevent erosion and ensure that progress continues. But studying prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination has become extremely challenging as a result of socio-legislative changes. Most people do not wish to acknowledge, or are simply unaware of, the extent to which they are biased. So asking them about their biases using self-reports is problematic to say the least. Fortunately, social psychologists have met this challenge by devising innovative techniques that get around these obstacles. Tony Greenwald (my post-doc advisor at the University of Washington) designed the Implicit Association Test, which measures attitudes and beliefs in ways that bypass deliberative processes. The IAT and similar measures have spawned a revolution in intergroup relations research. I was extremely fortunate to work with Greenwald and to be able to contribute to this exciting research frontier.
Rutgers has given me the opportunity to continue my research interests in an intellectually rigorous and supportive environment. I am blessed with terrific students and colleagues, and I feel honored to collaborate with many outstanding social scientists at other institutions. I am delighted to have made the leap from the arts to science, but it turns out the divide is surprisingly small because of the creativity and discipline that both fields require. More than anything, I feel deeply privileged to be able to ask and try to answer complex questions about human social behavior. Behavioral science is a challenging, humbling, and ever-evolving enterprise that has brought me numerous gifts. But I could not have made the leap without Bob, my life partner. We married when we both worked in the theatre, and he has traveled every step of the road with me. He is a documentary filmmaker who deeply values social justice, and I am proud to know and love him. He also helps me keep dancing by being an excellent salsa partner!