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), Purdue (Hwanseok Song), 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.

Due to a long history of residential segregation and discriminatory zoning laws and urban development practices, 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 environmental organizations and key decision-making bodies. For instance, 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. At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities report higher levels of concern about the environment than do Whites (see here and here). Current studies are exploring social psychological processes that may contribute to this “attitude-participation” gap, and other barriers to public engagement (for an overview of this work, see here and here).

For instance, we have found that stereotypic beliefs about others’ environmental attitudes may suppress pro-environmental engagement among groups historically underrepresented in the environmental movement. In a national-level survey experiment, we found that diverse segments of the US public underestimated the environmental concerns of minority and lower-income Americans, and misperceived them as lower than those of Whites. This environmental belief paradox – a tendency to perceive groups that are among the most vulnerable and most-concerned about the environment as least concerned emerged for every demographic group surveyed. We are currently working with collaborators at the Environmental Defense Fund, University of Texas, San Antonio, and Cornell to examine the extent to which these 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, rising 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. Psychological research on climate change has traditionally focused on how individuals understand climate change and assess its risks. Yet, as each new round of climate negotiations, and recent civil unrest around the implementation of climate policy well-illustrates, how people respond to climate change and its remedies is powerfully shaped by how others – including both ingroups and outgroups – respond to the issue.

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 intergroup 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 and decision making, see recent articles by Leaf Van Boven, Phil Ehret, and David Sherman, and our forthcoming special issue, “Behavioural Climate Policy,” anticipated in 2019, to appear in Behavioural Public Policy.

Dynamics of Intergroup Contact

In other work, we are interested in understanding how both subtle and overt biases impact communication and decision making. Interracial and interethnic interactions are remarkably fragile.  For instance, we have found that a mere 1-second delay in conversation can increase anxiety and undermine rapport in intergroup interactions (here). Moreover, with Tessa West and Chadly Stern, we have found that the mere perception that an outgroup conversation partner is anxious can promote intergroup contact avoidance, even when the arousal can be attributed to an ostensibly benign source (e.g., caffeine). In longitudinal field experiments (here), we have explored how superordinate identities can reduce intergroup anxiety and promote the development of cross-group relationships over time.

Affective interventions (e.g., manipulations that reduce anxiety) are particularly effective in reducing prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), yet, we know little about the strategies people use to regulate emotions in intergroup interactions and the consequences of these self-regulation strategies. Drawing on process models of emotion control (e.g., Gross, 2008), we are exploring a variety of questions about the causes and consequences of intergroup emotion regulation. Our findings suggest that Whites’ attempts to control emotional expressions in interracial interactions may not only be cognitively taxing, but may backfire, causing them to perceive their partner as unfriendly (see here).

Accuracy & Bias in Social Perception

How accurate are we when we attempt to intuit what members of other groups are thinking and feeling?  Using dyadic analytical methods, with Tessa West and Jack Dovidio, we are exploring sources of inaccuracy in intergroup perception that may illuminate how misunderstandings arise, and examining how accuracy changes over time 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 influence evaluative judgments. We are currently extending research on fluency to the domain of social judgments, and have found evidence that processing experiences can bias social impressions in intergroup interactions (for reviews, see here and here).