Cultural diversity is a foundational feature of the United States and an increasingly salient feature of many other nations. It can, at times, be understood as a source of strength while, at other times, reveal if not lead to societal injustice, inequality, or, simply, psychological discomfort. The members of the SPCL focus on the social psychology that gives rise to these and other outcomes of cultural diversity. Specifically, we examine processes of mind that influence the ways in which people experience and, thus, respond to diversity. This work can be organized into three broad themes: 1) perceiving and reasoning about intergroup inequality, 2) navigating diverse environments, and 3) experiencing discrimination. A brief summary of the research in each theme is provided below. Ultimately, we aim to unearth psychological barriers to the creation and maintenance of social environments, cultures, and contexts that are diverse, equitable, and just.

Perceiving & Reasoning About Intergroup Inequality

Perceiving inequality

Although cultural diversity is typically thought of separately from inequality, it is often the case that diverse societies are fundamentally unequal ones. What factors shape whether people perceive and/or acknowledge different types of inequality? Recent studies in the lab find that Americans largely misperceive the extent to which racial economic inequality has been attained in the United States (Kraus, Rucker, & Richeson, 2017). Indeed, White and Black Americans from both the top and bottom of the national income distribution, on average, estimated greater progress toward Black-White economic equality than has taken place, largely driven by over-estimates of the current state of racial economic equality compared to National statistics. These overestimates were predicted by greater belief in a just world and social network racial diversity (among Black Americans), as well as differences in subgroup societal status.

These findings suggest a profound misperception of and unfounded optimism regarding societal race-based economic equality. Indeed, our research suggests a fundamental belief in the mythology of racial progress; namely, the narrative that America’s path toward, if not achievement of, racial equality is automatic, linear, and inevitable. Not only is this narrative overly optimistic, but it is entirely unfounded for some domains of societal well-being, such as racial disparities in wealth (Kraus et al., 2019). Uncovering the factors that sustain this narrative (e.g., Onyeador et al., 2020) is critical to fostering accurate understanding of the current state of racial equality— a necessary condition for engendering reparative action.

This misperception of racial economic inequality seems to generalize to racial inequality more generally. One factor that predicts more accurate perceptions of the actual state of racial disparities in American society is having an appreciation for the structural nature of racism. Specifically, we are investigating how lay beliefs about the nature of racism— as primarily due to prejudiced individuals or, rather, to institutional/structural factors that disadvantage members of particular racial groups—shape perceptions of racial inequality. Indeed, accounting for these lay beliefs helps to reduce the “gap” in perceived racial inequality typically found between White individuals and those from racial minority backgrounds (Rucker, Duker, & Richeson, 2021).

Another project in this broad area of inquiry concerns responses to exposure to rising economic inequality in American society.  In recent research with CUNY graduate center sociologist, Leslie McCall, we explore and test the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, in McCall, Burk, Laperrière, and Richeson (2017) we expose American adults to information about rising economic inequality in the US (or control information) and then ask about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs), followed by their support for business and government actors to enact policies that will reduce economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, these results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of opportunity to get ahead in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress inequality. We are currently pursuing research investigating whether exposure to rising economic inequality can increase awareness of racial economic gaps (Rucker, Hudson, Callahan, Kraus, & Richeson, in preparation), perhaps because it increases skepticism that economic outcomes are not constrained by racial group membership (Dietze, McCall, Craig, & Richeson, in preparation).

Reasoning about inequality

Once perceived, how do people respond to information about inequality? Our emerging work suggests that beliefs about the nature of racism are relevant to this question as well. For instance, several studies find that Whites’ responses to information about racial disparities in the prison population are shaped, at least in part by, their lay beliefs regarding racism. Individuals with a more structural, rather than interpersonal, understanding of racism are more likely to respond to information about the disproportionate number of Black individuals in the prison population with increased support for policies that would reduce these disparities in mass incarceration, especially those that are especially concerned about societal hierarchy (see again Rucker, Duker, & Richeson, 2021). Our ongoing research will examine these processes in other domains of racial inequality as well as in other forms of intergroup inequality.

Another factor that appears to shape how people reason about inequality is whether they believe (or have been informed) it is a consequence of implicit/unconscious, rather than explicit/conscious, attitudes and beliefs. Specifically, research and theory on moral responsibility suggest that people who engage in discrimination due to biases and beliefs that are held unconsciously or triggered automatically (i.e., implicit bias) may be deemed less culpable for their actions than those who engage in discrimination due to biases and beliefs that they hold consciously. Consistent with this prediction, we (Daumeyer, Onyeador, Brown, & Richeson, 2019) found that when presented with communications of scientific findings reporting on the systemic discriminatory effects of implicit (rather than explicit) bias, people hold the perpetrators less accountable and deem them less worthy of punishment. We have now observed this reduced accountability for implicit bias effect in three different contexts (medical interactions, police-citizen interactions, Tech workplaces) and across four different types of bias (partisan, ageism, racism, sexism). Our ongoing research, funded by support from the National Science Foundation, explores the mechanisms underlying these effects, their implications for individuals’ beliefs about the nature of discrimination based on race and gender, and optimism that discrimination can be reduced in society.

Navigating Diversity

Threat of increasing national racial diversity

In light of the proliferation of articles, news reports, and press releases detailing the march towards a “majority-minority” nation, we began an exploration of White Americans’ reactions to this information. This research consistently finds that White individuals find this anticipated demographic change as threatening to their current status as the dominant racial group in the US (Craig & Richeson, 2014a, 2014b). For example, the perceived status threat that is triggered by considering a “majority-minority” future leads White Americans to express more negative attitudes toward racial minorities in both an explicit self-report measures and reaction time measures (Craig & Richeson, 2014b). Status threat also leads to greater identification with conservative ideology and conservative policy positions (Craig & Richeson, 2014b). The cultural threat that is triggered by the increasing racial/ethnic diversity information results in greater support for cultural assimilation and greater concern about anti-White discrimination (Craig & Richeson, 2017, 2018). Parallel work is examining how different racial minorities respond to this and similar information, especially groups that are not growing in number (Blacks) compared with those that are (Latinos & Asians; Craig & Richeson, 2017). Our ongoing work in this area is examining ways to attenuate these threats and their implications for political behavior, perceptions of citizenship, and feelings of national belonging (Brown, Rucker, & Richeson, in preparation; see also Craig, Rucker, & Richeson, 2018a, 2018b).

Dynamics of interracial interactions

One longstanding line of research in the lab considers the dynamics of interracial contact. These interactions are one, often overlooked, space in which individuals directly experience the diversity of their environments, and they are often heralded as an important route to prejudice reduction. Our early work revealed the troubling finding that interracial interactions often impair performance on cognitive tasks, particularly ones that require response inhibition or other forms of self-control (Richeson & Shelton, 2003, 2007; Richeson, Trawalter, & Shelton, 2005). To examine the mechanisms underlying this effect, we conducted a series of studies using both behavioral and neuroimaging methodologies. This work offered compelling evidence that interracial contact impairs inhibitory task performance because individuals engage in self-control during the interaction, largely in order to manage concerns about appearing prejudiced (White individuals) or being the target of prejudice (racial minorities). These acts of self-control leave individuals temporarily unable or unwilling to engage is subsequent tasks that also require self-control.

These studies suggest that self-regulatory efforts to avoid the expression of prejudice may unwittingly leave individuals less capable of successfully completing a multitude of important cognitive tasks. So, does this mean that individuals should not attempt to regulate the expression of prejudice during interracial interactions? Contrary to this idea, our research finds that self-control efforts, while cognitively costly, can be effective in creating positive interracial interactions (Shelton, Richeson, Salvatore, & Trawalter, 2005). We are currently exploring whether different mindsets can foster positive interactions without the accompanying cognitive costs.

Experiencing Discrimination

Regulating emotions in the face of discrimination

Discrimination, whether experienced personally or witnessed, is a stressor that can harm mental and physical health. Research on managing stressors finds that reflecting on the event from a third-person, distanced point of view rather than from a personal, immersed point of view can reduce its negative effects (Ayduk & Kross, 2010). Building on this intriguing line of research, we are pursuing a project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to examine whether the benefits of distanced reflection on engagement with negative life events extends to group-based discrimination. We consider the influence of distanced compared with immersed forms of emotion regulation on the emotional reactions, physiological arousal, cognitive functioning, and collective-action intentions of members of different low-status groups as they relive and/or witness discrimination against their group. Initial work suggests that distanced engagement with discrimination may only produce modest levels of relief from the emotional toll of re-living past incidences of sexism (Duker, Green, Onyeador, & Richeson, under review). And, what affective benefits do accrue, may reduce willingness to engage in collective-action (Green et al., under review). Our ongoing research is considering the efficacy of a third type of emotion-regulation strategy; namely generating a redemption narrative (see again, Duker et al., under review).

Stigma-based solidarity

Another important line of research in the lab explores how the experience of group-based discrimination affects relations among members of different socially-stigmatized groups. Specifically, the Common Ingroup Identity Model of intergroup relations (CIIM; Gaertner & Dovidio 2000) suggests that perceived discrimination may lead members of different stigmatized groups to categorize themselves in terms of a common “disadvantaged” identity and, in turn, produce positive attitudes toward other stigmatized groups. Consistent with the CIIM, we found that exposing racial minority participants (e.g. Asians-Americans) to anti-Asian prejudice leads to the expression of greater perceived similarity with, and more positive evaluations of, Blacks & Latinos (Craig & Richeson, 2012). In other words, making ingroup discrimination salient can promote stigma-based solidarity. However, extant social psychological research (i.e. Social Identity Theory; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) suggests that making ingroup discrimination salient can lead members of one stigmatized group to evaluate other stigmatized groups more negatively. Consistent with this idea, we have found that making sexism salient for White women or making racism salient for racial minorities leads to more negative evaluations of racial and sexual minorities, respectively (Craig et al., 2012; Craig & Richeson, 2014).

Taken together, this work suggests that salient discrimination leads to more positive relations among groups within a dimension of identity (e.g. among racial minorities) but, more negative relations among groups that cross dimensions of identity (e.g. racial and sexual minorities). Our most recent research suggests, however, that this cross-identity dimensional divide can be bridged by drawing similarities between the types of discrimination the groups have faced (Cortland et al., 2017). Our ongoing work seeks to examine the implications of this work for the creation and maintenance of multiracial political coalitions as well as investigations of other avenues to promote stigma-based solidarity and reduce cross-group derogation in the face of salient ingroup discrimination (Craig & Richeson, 2016).