Racial and ethnic minorities will account for a majority of the under-18 US population by 2020. Large-scale demographic shifts are similarly underway in Europe and Asia with the arrival of humanitarian entrants and skilled workers, with migration set to increase in many of the world’s fastest-growing regions in the coming decades due to climate change. Our work seeks to understand factors that make integration and intergroup cooperation challenging for members of majority and minority groups, and the implications of these dynamics for addressing local and global sustainability challenges.

Diversity Science Meets Sustainability Science

Sustainability challenges like climate change are often characterized as collective action problems, however, beyond partisan influences, we know little about how group memberships and identity processes impact how people think about these issues. With collaborators at Cornell (Jon Schuldt and Neil Lewis), University of Texas, San Antonio (Luis Hestres), Yale (Matt Ballew), and the Environmental Defense Fund (Rainer Romero-Canyas and Mario Bravo), we are exploring how group identities and intergroup inequities affect how people perceive and respond to environmental problems.

Race and income in the US predict exposure to a wide range of environmental hazards linked to persistent health disparities. For instance, epidemiological studies indicate that fine air pollutants alone are responsible for nearly 1 in 5 ischemic heart-disease-related deaths nationwide, with the highest mortality rates occurring in racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan areas. Yet, despite these inequities, racial and ethnic minorities remain substantially underrepresented in national environmental organizations and decision-making bodies. Within the U.S., racial and ethnic disparities in the environmental sciences exceed those in nearly every other science discipline. Similar disparities exist within US environmental organizations, with non-Whites comprising, on average, fewer than 13% of environmental NGO staff. Current studies are exploring social psychological processes that may contribute to these disparities, and other barriers to public engagement (for an overview of this work, see here and here). We are currently working with collaborators at the Environmental Defense Fund, University of Texas, San Antonio, and Cornell to examine the extent to which norm misperceptions may contribute to the historically low prioritization of equity and justice in environmental policy-making, and may impede collective action within minority and low-income communities (for more on this work, and collaborations using the Cornell Mobile Lab, see here).

Additional studies are examining how political polarization, social class, income inequality, and religion impact how people engage with the issue of climate change.

Social Climate Science

Despite recent calls for broadening the role of the social and behavioral sciences in climate change research, climate change remains surprisingly understudied within psychology. An analysis of over 9,000 articles published between 2005 and 2014 in 7 top-tier psychology journals revealed that only 1% of articles mentioned “climate change” or “global warming,” even anecdotally. Unanswered scientific questions about the social psychological drivers and consequences of climate change translate into large policy gaps and missed opportunities for advancing psychological science. For instance, current theories of intergroup relations are often silent in addressing how and when group identities and group hierarchies extend beyond national borders and beyond our own species. Similarly, understanding when we act in the interests of future generations – questions of intergenerational relations – remain largely open for research and theory development.

With Jon Schuldt and Rainer Romero-Canyas, we have recently developed a conceptual framework for understanding how both individual (e.g., cognitive biases) and group-level (intra- and inter-group) processes shape how people perceive and respond to climate change which is guiding new empirical work in this area.

For more on this framework, and our perspective on what’s “social” about the problem of climate change, see our article, “Social Climate Science,” and introduction to the special issue, “Climate Change and Intergroup Relations.For a sampling of emerging perspectives on the relevance of psychological science to climate policy-making, see recent articles by Leaf Van Boven, Phil Ehret, and David Sherman, and a forthcoming special issue, “Behavioural Climate Policy,” co-edited with Sander van der Linden and Leaf Van Boven, to appear in Behavioural Public Policy.

Accuracy & Bias in Social Perception

How accurate are we when we attempt to intuit what members of other groups are thinking and feeling?  In other work, we are interested in understanding how both subtle and overt biases impact communication and impression formation. For instance, we have found that a mere 1-second delay in conversation can increase anxiety and undermine rapport in intergroup interactions, and that perceiving an outgroup conversation partner as anxious can lead people to avoid intergroup contact even when the anxiety can be attributed to a benign source (e.g., caffeine). In field experiments, we have explored how superordinate identities can reduce intergroup anxiety and promote the development of cross-group relationships over time.

Using dyadic analytical methods, with Tessa West and Jack Dovidio, we are exploring how accuracy in social perception changes as cross-group relationships develop (here). In other work, we are exploring “metacognitive” sources of prejudice. For instance, research on decision making has shown that fluency, the subjective ease or difficulty associated with cognitive operations, can shape evaluative judgments. We are currently extending research on fluency to the domain of intergroup judgments, and have found evidence that processing experiences can bias social impressions in intergroup interactions (for reviews, see here and here).