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Defying norms

Prentice studies social-rule violators to understand behavior

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Deborah Prentice

Professor of Psychology Deborah Prentice has conducted research on various aspects of social norms since coming to Princeton in 1988. Her current work focuses on attitudes about gender.

Princeton NJ -- A young man who volunteered to participate in a psychology experiment sat in a lab in Green Hall with five electrodes attached to his face. They recorded the reaction of his facial muscles as he listened to a female voice say: “I did really well on my SATs, so well that I know I’ll get in anywhere I want. I can’t wait to tell my friends. I know that none of them could have done as well.”

The volunteer crinkled his eyes and raised his lips in an expression that was somewhere between a derisive smile and a wince.

“He was frowning and smiling at the same time,” observed Deborah Prentice, professor of psychology, viewing a video recording of the young man on her computer. “It was like he was enjoying his dislike of her. It’s kind of a wince of superiority.”

The experiment was one of several Prentice has undertaken to study the effects of defying gender norms, in this case when a female displays the aggressive, confident attitude that society deems to be masculine.

“We’re looking at how people react to norm-violators — women who behave in a stereotypically masculine way and men who behave in a stereotypically feminine way,” she said.

Prentice studies attitudes about gender as a means of gaining a greater understanding of how social norms, beliefs and values influence people’s perceptions and behaviors in social contexts.

“I’m very interested in the unwritten social rules we live by, the properties of a culture or group that everybody knows to be true, although there is no formal way that they are passed along,” said Prentice, who has taught at Princeton since 1988 and has been chair of the psychology department since 2002. “I’ve studied various aspects of social norms since coming to Princeton, but recently I’ve become very interested in what happens to you if you violate them.”

Prentice, a 1984 Stanford graduate, received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1989. She has written extensively about norms, stereotypes, group behavior and group conflict. Her book “Cultural Divides: Understanding and Overcoming Group Conflict,” co-written with D.T. Miller, was published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1999.

During her tenure at the University, Prentice has taught a number of courses, including “The Psychology of Moral Behavior” and “Psychology of Gender.” In her first six years in the department, she revised and transformed Psychology 101 as well as a graduate-level statistics course. In 1994, she received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

In the last few years, Prentice and her fellow social psychologists have been able to significantly expand the range of their experiments by undertaking projects that utilize the facilities at the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior, which opened in 1998. Her experiment on gender norms was performed at the center using the electromyography equipment there.

“I’m not a student of the brain, but I can use physiological methods to gain insight into the social psychological processes I study,” Prentice said. “Ten years ago, social psychology and neuroscience were separate worlds. Today the center has really pulled the department together and allowed me and a lot of my colleagues to do projects that involve brain imaging and other physiological methods.”

In her recent studies, conducted with former Princeton graduate student Erica Carranza, Prentice found that men and women have very different reactions to those who defy gender norms.

“Women don’t show the mixed reactions toward the masculine woman that men do — they are unambivalently negative toward the masculine women, and much more positive toward the feminine men,” she said.

Prentice is interested in parsing the reactions of men and women even further, to get at how and why those who violate gender norms are punished.

She also is studying the consequences of essentialist thinking about gender and other social categories.

“People think of men and women, blacks and whites, as having essential and immutable characteristics that make them who they are and differentiate them from one another,” Prentice said. “And, as a consequence, they see a difference as deeper and much more difficult to resolve if it occurs with a member of another racial group or another gender than if it occurs with a member of their own group,” she added.

A wife embraces essentialist thinking, for example, when she sees that her husband has left his socks on the floor again and picks them up while muttering to herself, “Men!”, certain that failing to put laundry in the hamper is an essential gender characteristic that cannot be altered.

In her experiments on this subject, Prentice introduces a meaningless similarity or difference between two volunteers by showing them a series of slides full of dots and asking them to estimate the number of dots on each slide. After completing the task, some pairs are told that they performed similarly — that they both overestimated or both underestimated the number of dots. Other pairs are told that they performed differently — that one person underestimated and the other person overestimated.

“The feedback they receive is completely bogus, but the point is to see if it affects their perceptions of the task and their behavior when they take the test again,” Prentice said.

When the pair of volunteers includes a man and a woman and when they are told they have opposite tendencies, both volunteers show evidence of essentialist thinking. For example, when the man is told he overestimated and the woman is told she underestimated, both of them infer that most men would overestimate and most women would underestimate. They expect this difference to be stable and immutable over time. And, when given the opportunity to take the test again, neither of them tries to correct for their bias in order to increase their accuracy. Under all other circumstances, volunteers try to correct for their tendency to overestimate or underestimate when they take the test a second time.

“When a man and woman differ, even on something as meaningless as a dot estimation task, they see it as significant, as something they cannot or should not change,” Prentice said. “They say to themselves, ‘Aha, I’ve discovered a gender difference.’ They don’t know what it means, but they act as if it is immutable.”

Prentice’s findings are likely to help psychologists better understand the dynamics in relationships between people who are members of different racial, ethnic or religious groups.

“This research could have important implications for how we understand people’s patterns of interaction and, in particular, why members of different groups often pull apart,” she said.