Psychologist Valerie Purdie-Vaughns Studies the Impact of Society’s Expectations

February 15, 2015
Valerie Purdie-Vaughns

Photo by Eileen Barroso

When Valerie Purdie-Vaughns was in high school, she was recruited by Columbia to play basketball, and she still has a vivid memory of what her guidance counselor said. “I know Columbia is interested in you,” she recalls as though the conversation were yesterday, “but you won’t get in, and even if you do, people like you don’t do well there.”

Today the Long Island native is an associate professor of psychology at the University, specializing in stereotypes and the experiences of marginalized groups in society, including minorities, the disabled, women in science, gays and lesbians, and ex-convicts. “Stereotyping can undermine motivation and performance,” she says. “It makes people sick.”

Her recent research explores the impact of psychological stress on health. She has collaborated with neuroscientists at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute; physicians and geneticists at Columbia University Medical Center; and faculty in other departments across the University. In December, her research was the focus of a Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture titled, “Race Matters, but Not How You Think it Does,” hosted by the Zuckerman Institute at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

At Stanford, where she earned her Ph.D., her dissertation adviser was Claude Steele, a psychologist renowned for his work on stereotypes, who later became provost at Columbia. As an undergraduate at Columbia, she lettered in varsity basketball for four years, which she says taught her to be creative and competitive. It is her mother, who was a third grade teacher in Bay Shore, N.Y., whom she credits with inspiring her teaching style.

“Her classroom was magical,” she says. “I want to make science magical by making it real and exciting and present and relevant.” In January, the New York Observer, finding those same qualities in her classroom, named Purdie-Vaughns one of the city’s top professors, writing that she is someone who “electrifies” her students.

“Our job as faculty is to figure out what turns students on,” she says. “I try to think about that in every single lecture.” In May she will give the Columbia College Dean’s Day lecture during reunion weekend.

Q. How did you get interested in cultural psychology?

The light bulb went off in my senior year at Columbia in the course I took with Geraldine Downey called “Children at Risk.” The pieces were coming together—the idea that you could use science to understand how to change people’s lives, that there was a science to thinking about disadvantaged people. Up until that time I didn’t realize that you could think about social structure and inequality.

Q. What made you return to Columbia to teach after six years at Yale?

The opportunity to do interdisciplinary work here is amazing. Everyone in my department is interdisciplinary in some way, working with economists, the Business School, political scientists. At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Institute, I learned the importance of integrating health into psychology. Fred Harris, a professor of political science, helps put my research in a historical context. Here in the Psychology Department I work with Carl Hart and Geraldine Downey—giants in their field. I have never been held to such a high standard, and I am forever appreciative.

Q. Your early research involved middle school students. What did you find?

About 10 years ago, colleagues and I were invited to try to reduce an achievement gap between African American students and white students in an inner city area near Hartford, Conn. In sixth grade they all pretty much started off with the same grades. But over time, from sixth through eighth grade, minority students performed less well than we knew they were capable of from their test scores. We randomly assigned the entire seventh grade, about 200 students, to two different writing exercises. One group was asked to write about their most important values—athletic ability, being good at art, creativity, independence, any of these. We call it an affirmation exercise. A control group wrote about their least important values and why they might be important to someone else. After one 15-minute writing exercise, we reduced the letter-grade gap between the white American students and African American students by about 25 percent. We went back twice that year and in eighth grade did one more 15-minute exercise. By the end of eighth grade, the trajectory had changed for the African American students. Seven years later, of the African American students who had been in our intervention, 87 percent were enrolled in four-year institutions, far above the national average.

Q. Why do you think this simple intervention had such a great impact?

Seventh grade is a really interesting time. Children become more and more aware that there are stereotypes about their groups in society. They’re starting to date so they’re becoming more aware of racial and gender dynamics, test scores are starting to become more and more relevant. It’s also a moment of great promise because children are malleable during that time. A lot of problems can be avoided by changing how much we think about students’ feelings and the care and concern that we need to have toward them.

Q. What are some groups affected by stereotypes?

Every single one of us has to contend with some kind of stereotype, whether based on race, age, culture, accent, region or religious affiliation. I’ve done research on gay men, looking at the psychological division between places where people are stigmatized, such as work, and private spaces, such as home, where they’re not. I studied children with learning disabilities, showing that some of their difficulties can be traced to the stereotypes people have of them. I have looked at stereotypes of Asian Americans—loners, secretive but not like the African American stereotype of dangerous—and how that changed after the Virginia Tech shooting [the 2007 campus shooting in which a Korean-born gunman killed 32 people before committing suicide]. I have a project right now looking at what happens after someone has been incarcerated. They’ve done their time, but the stigma of incarceration continues. This disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos, and in particular men. We have been looking at the psychological effects—when you’ve actually done something wrong, what are your prospects of being forgiven by society? The common theme is to show how stereotypes shape our experiences in ways we don’t think about.

Q. What is the impact of stereotypes in the criminal justice system?

Blackness and crime are so tightly intertwined that you can’t separate one from the other. And racial profiling affects everyone. There is research showing that African American police officers, Latino police officers, white American police officers, women, men—almost all police officers, regardless of their ethnicity, engage in stereotypes. From an early age people perceive black children as older, bigger and more threatening. As soon as they stop having those little chubby cheeks, which is at about 5 or 6, the stereotype of danger and threat starts to set in. We have found that when an African American man steps on an elevator, people perceive the elevator as more crowded. These stereotypes are really powerful because they shape perceptions of threat and safety.

Q. Does the media play a role in perpetuating stereotypes?

The media is an easy target because it’s all around us. It shapes how we see people and the decisions we make. To present visual images, the media often engages in some version of stereotyping—Native Americans with feathers, for example. There’s a lot of ethnic humor, both jokes and TV shows. It’s a great advance when we can poke fun at certain stereotypes, but it’s still incredibly hurtful. Having said that, the media also can be a powerful force for change. We are starting to see more images of LGBT families, gay men and lesbian women. We’ve seen dwarfism and older adults doing physically challenging activities like surfing. The media can help create a better reality, a future reality.

Q. You have written about “the Obama effect,” the optimism created by the election of President Barack Obama (CC’83) among African American youth. Has that changed in the six-plus years he has been in office?

We have data showing that for two years after the election, when we asked students to think and reflect about what the election meant to them, it actually improved their academic performance. Now that his popularity has declined in relative terms, we don’t know whether that has undermined student performance, or whether people just ignore it. I would argue that as Obama leaves office, the same level of motivation and inspiration we saw will return because people will realize that his election was a moment that will probably never happen again in our lifetime. I don’t know this, but I hope someone will give me money to study this question.

Q. What research are you working on now and what are you planning?

I’ve been looking at the effects of what people call toxic stress in childhood—poverty, social exclusion, abuse—on mortality rates and depression, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease when people are 40, 50 and 60. I am trying to link what we know about how stereotypes, bias and discrimination can undermine academic performance with research on health disparities between women and men, between African Americans and white Americans. I also have started a project to integrate the work of some famous psychologists with the African American scholars we know they were in conversation with. Our own [Teachers College Professor Emeritus] Edmund Gordon, who’s now 93, granted me an interview. I’m going to start with him to try to figure out who are our top thinkers of color and women in psychology and education, and what kinds of intellectual conversations they were in with mainstream psychologists.

Q. How has technology, specifically, the ability to look inside the brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), changed what you do?

It’s crystal clear that technology has advanced the science. We can now see that the impact of stereotype is real because it produces physical changes in the brain. On the other hand, this doesn’t change or diminish the psychological experience. If you feel uncomfortable, you feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter where in the brain that discomfort is coming from. Sitting down with someone is incredibly powerful because they’re telling you what they want you to know about their lives, and what people want you to know about their lives is just as interesting as what you could see in the brain. You don’t want one to be privileged over the other; they both do very, very important things.

Q. How do stereotypes affect women in science?

The issue of women in science is fascinating. I live it and then I study it. Young girls are interested in science, they’re told that they can do science, and then around third grade it all changes. They’re not pushed in the same way. The expectations are lower for them. Watching the joy of being a scientist fade from third grade through middle school is heartbreaking. Then, in the beginning years of college, women have the impression that stereotypes are not going to hurt them, not going to stop them in any way. Yet year after year women come back to me later and say, “You will not believe what happened.” Male professors are framed as idiosyncratic, quirky, authentic, singular, working against the grain. It’s not the same for women in science. When a woman is talking about astrophysics, people often question whether she is indeed brilliant. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be in places where my race and gender weren’t a factor. I feel like I’m creating a new image of what a scientist can look like and be like– at least I hope so.

—by Georgette Jasen