Five Questions with Cultural Psychologist Valerie Purdie-Vaughns

November 26, 2014

The issue of race is foremost in the nation’s consciousness as events in Ferguson, Mo. unfold. But for Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, there is a more important message. “There are parents sitting in their home right now who buried their son,” she said. “It is a lesson about our humanity. Every other lesson is secondary.”

An associate professor of psychology studying intergroup relations and diversity, Purdie-Vaughns’ research centers on race, and the unexpected ways it can play out. On December 3, her work will be the focus of a Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture titled, “Race Matters, but Not How You Think it Does,” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

Purdie-Vaughns, a 1993 graduate of Columbia College, is the director of the University’s Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind, where she develops research on groups with threatened identities—women in the sciences, LGBT individuals in American society, aging workers in technology firms, African-Americans in intellectual settings—and examines the consequences of their devaluing experiences. Her goal is to bring new discoveries and insights on the brain and behavior to uncover ways to improve relations between majority and minority group members.

“Much of our work these days is combining insights from what we know about social context with what medical researchers and neuroscientists know about how stress affects the brain and body,” said Purdie-Vaughns.


Q: How do you define cultural psychology?

It is the study of how our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are rooted in and embodied in the culture around us. Its main tenet is that mind and culture are inseparable because people are shaped by their culture and vice versa. In my course I address questions ranging from “Is there such a thing as a gay culture or a hip-hop culture or a culture of millennials?” to “How and why are certain genetic codes distributed differently among disparate populations?” The course culminates with my students conducting in-depth scientific analyses of organizations around New York City that claim to have culture as a major feature, such as Muslim police forces in Crown Heights, LGBT-only schools in Manhattan and ethnic food trucks in Brooklyn.

Q: Can you give an example of one of your cultural studies?

In 2008, we conducted a field experiment to test the “Obama effect” among 6th grade minority students. The racial gap in feeling stereotyped and ignored in school between African American and white middle school students has been stubbornly persistentent, but a 15-minute “Obama role model” intervention a week after the presidential election dramatically reduced these negative feelings among these children for their entire school year. More remarkably, it improved the grades of African American and white students by the end of the marking period in which Obama was elected. These findings suggest that the impact of role models can operate through different psychological mechanisms. For both African American and white students, at least in this population, reflecting about Obama called forth his status as a role model and charismatic leader, which translated into improved performance. And for African American students, Obama’s achievements altered their feelings of being stereotyped and limited in their immediate school environment.

Q: What is a “double consciousness” and can it be applied to any group?

Double consciousness stems from a passage in the first chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk. He describes how the descendants of Africans feel a sense of twoness, of being a U.S. citizen as well as black. These two identities represent two simultaneous selves—American and African or American and black. Double consciousness can be applied to any group. I have studied it among LGBT groups and religious groups on college campuses. The concept of the veil, or an ignorance of otherness, is central to understanding double consciousness. Du Bois argued that for black Americans, the veil stands between them and white America, inhibiting access to the privileges reserved for white Americans.

Q: Your upcoming lecture is about how race matters in the U.S. What can you tell us about your research on this topic?

People tend to believe that race and gender operate like personality or group characteristics. This is simply not true. Decades of research tell us that the social environment that individuals find themselves in is the driving force for thoughts and concerns about identity. My research aims to close racial and gender achievement gaps in educational institutions, based on the concept of "stereotype threat," which is the idea that when people are in situations where stereotypes about their group are relevant, the context can raise concerns about confirming that stereotype. One of those situations is when African American students find themselves in institutions where stereotypes about their group as “not smart” are at play. They subconsciously worry that they might confirm stereotypes in the minds of others, which saps cognitive functioning and undermines their performance. Our latest work shows that stereotype threat increases biological markers for cardiovascular disease and compromises brain regions associated with learning and memory.

Q: What would you say to the idea that stereotypes exist because they contain some truth?

Science tells us that this is not true. Stereotypes are fixed and overgeneralized beliefs about a particular group or class of people. They help us to respond rapidly to situations because our brains tell us that we have been in that situation before, or have seen a particular group before. Stereotypes may help us to simplify our social world, but they are deeply problematic because we make generalizations about people and situations that might not be true.

— Interviewed by Wilson Valentin