For many years, studies have shown that one way to decrease prejudice is to have members of different groups work together, especially toward shared goals. “If I interact with people that are in different social groups from me,” says Dr. Candace Lapan, “then I will get to know them better and it will alleviate some of the prejudice that I have.”
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. For example, many people don’t have a chance to regularly interact with, say, people with physical disabilities.
Senior psychology major Taylor Stump and Lapan, assistant professor of psychology, are hoping to shed some light on other avenues for eradicating prejudice. Thanks to a Reeves Summer Research grant, the pair are in the midst of a study titled “Examining the Relation between Preschoolers’ Executive Function, Theory of Mind, and Stereotyping of Individuals with Physical Disabilities.”
Stump and Lapan are essentially trying to uncover a relationship between children’s developmental abilities in a couple of key areas and how those children see people who are different from them.
“Executive function” refers to working memory, mental flexibility and self-control, characteristics that develop as children grow older. “Theory of mind” essentially describes how well children can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
The more developed these cognitive abilities are, Stump and Lapan posit, the less the child will stereotype others. “What we hope to see is that older children are less likely to participate in stereotyping and prejudice,” Stump says. “We also expect to find that younger children with more advanced cognitive abilities will also show less bias, and that older children who are less developed will show more.”
If so, it might give teachers, counselors and caregivers insight into how to guide children to think less prejudicially.
But first Stump and Lapan have to finish collecting the data. Although the Reeves projects are officially “summer” research, Covid-19 has erected some huge roadblocks that the pair have spent months trying to get around, pushing their efforts into the fall.
In normal times, all data collection would have been done in person, but that wasn’t practical (or safe) this year. When Covid-19 sent students into a virtual-learning world in mid-March, Stump and Lapan had already collected most of what they needed in order to do in-person research. To switch to a virtual setting, they had to essentially start over.
“We already had all those materials to start testing in person,” Lapan says, “and now we had to create them all from scratch. That took literally weeks, because it was a lot of work.”
“I think the most difficult part for me, before the study actually began, was realizing how much goes into creating a study and getting it ready to actually test,” Stump says. “There’s so many moving parts. You have to create different protocols, different counterbalances. You have to use so many databases to make sure your participants’ information won’t get leaked or can’t be accessible to anybody else.”
Finding children to take part has also been difficult. Psychological-development studies are usually done onsite, and in the past Lapan and her students have built up rapport with parents in Union County before signing their kids up for a study.
Making the study completely online has greatly increased the number of potential study subjects (so far, children from Arizona, New Hampshire and New Jersey have participated, in addition to those who are closer to Wingate), but it has created another problem: People are less likely to trust researchers from distant points, unless they’re from a big-name program. (If you have a child between the ages of 4 and 6 who would be willing to take part in the study, check out Wingate’s P.U.P.P.Y. Lab.)
“As the study has gone on, I’d say that the hardest part would definitely be recruiting,” Stump says. “I’m so used to showing up to daycares, giving them a call or actually connecting with the parents in person and getting that trust from them.
“I feel like the trust and the connection has been a little bit blurred from having to do it online, which makes it harder for us to gain participants.”
Coming out of her shell
Lapan has been impressed with Stump’s persistence in the face of so many challenges, but Stump shrugs it off as a price well worth paying to become a psychologist. She came to Wingate intending to become a nurse, but then she took Psychology 101. “You know how people say, ‘When you know, you know?’” Stump says. “Well, when I took that psychology class, I absolutely knew, and the next day I changed my major to psychology.”
Stump, a commuter and first-generation college student, has had to become less reserved in order to excel at psychology. Now she is not only comfortable doing original research, but she’s planning to go to graduate school once she earns her Wingate degree in May.
“She was a little bit on the shy and quiet side when she took her first class with me,” Lapan says. “She has recognized that she wants to do something in the field of psychology, which means that she has to come out of her shell a bit. It’s just a necessity of the field. She’s done a lot of work to do that. She’s been very persistent in learning and growing and working with families and kids.”
So far, Lapan and Stump have tested about 25 participants, and they hope to have tested as many as 75 by the end of November. They’ve submitted an abstract of their study in hopes of being able to present it at a conference in April.
Once children are signed up for the study, they play a variety of games created by Lapan and Stump. Those games, conducted over the online-video-call service Zoom, usually take 20 to 30 minutes and provide an idea of how cognitively developed and empathetic children are.
One of the first tasks involves a crayon box, which is opened to reveal not the expected crayons inside but crackers. The box is then closed, and the child is asked what is in the box.
“Children of a younger age are going to say ‘crayons’ again, because they think that crayons go in there and it couldn’t be anything else,” Stump says. “But the older children are going to say exactly what they saw, which is crackers.”
The questions evolve until finally the children are shown a picture of two kids who are identical, except that one is in a wheelchair. They are then asked questions such as, “Who do you think is friendly?” “Who do you think is mean?” and “Who do you think got this question right?” They can choose either child, both or neither.
Ultimately, Lapan and Stump hope to provide another piece of the child-development puzzle, one that can help level the playing field.
In a way, that’s what Reeves Summer Research grants do too.
“These programs are really invaluable, because most of the way that this has worked in the past is people doing unpaid internships, which as you can imagine just breeds inequities,” Lapan says. “Who has the means to do an unpaid internship? Students that are very well off, students that have lots of opportunities already. And other students, low-income students, get really left behind in that.”
Stump is glad to get a chance to gain some experience and polish up her resume. But mostly, she wants to help her chosen field of study, and society in general.
“I have nieces and nephews and also in the future would like to have kids, and it’s good to have this knowledge out there for everybody to look at and see our end result,” she says. “We hope to get enough data and information to put out there what parents can do to help their children not fall into these stereotyping and prejudice biases, in hopes that they can guide their children to accept everybody.”
Oct. 13, 2020