Research

What are the causes and consequences of inequality?

The problem of inequality often appears sinister and permanent: individual bigotry, or structural hierarchies. Yet our seemingly-mundane identity processes can produce harmful outcomes, too: perpetuating division, and hurting the most vulnerable. My research moves between the laboratory, the field, and surveys to investigate how identity processes predict disparate behavior, ultimately aiming toward creating effective interventions. I describe selected research projects below. Please see publications for more detail.

  1. How do people manage social status differences at work and at school?

    Social identities tied to social hierarchy—including racial identity, gender identity, and roles that vary in status and power—all shape behaviors from cooperation to violence. Overarching hierarchies matter, but situations change a person’s sense of being superior or subordinate. My research finds these situational identity threats have powerful consequences. In my dissertation research, I manipulated relative social status and found that status differences foster disparate communication and cooperation. For details, see Swencionis & Fiske (2016) and Swencionis & Fiske (2018).

  2. How do identity threats relate to violent behavior?

    Common explanations for police violence are benign (e.g., the suspect resisted), or sinister (e.g., the officer is racist). The reality is more complex, and identity processes are especially dangerous. In my postdoctoral research, I find officers’ social dominance and low trust in residents turn out to be vulnerabilities to situational identity threats. These threats put residents’ life and liberty at risk when officers turn to violence. This is ongoing collaborative work with Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff and staff members at the Center for Policing Equity. For a brief review of our approach, see Swencionis & Goff (2017).

  3. What are the barriers to forming close intergroup friendships?

    Intergroup friendships benefit both majority and minority group members, but close intergroup friendships are rare compared to intragroup friendships. This project investigates one potential factor that may hinder close friendships between majority and minority group members: majority group members’ motivation to appear non-prejudiced, which may stall friendships at an early stage of superficial conversations. This is ongoing collaborative work with Dr. Nicole Shelton and Lindsey Eikenburg at Princeton.