Every day, we make decisions. Lots of decisions.
The choices we make or behaviors we engage in can be linked to our motivations. These motivations can fluctuate, depending on whether they stem from an individual opinion or a reaction to public sentiment. Lisa Legault, an assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson, studies the motivational forces distinguishing intrinsic and extrinsic factors that prompt actions and attitudes within group dynamics.
“Like any psychologist, I’ve always been interested in why people do the things that they do,” says Legault. “I started investigating how motivation applies to social problems and found it was an important predictor in differences in stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.”
Legault’s research focuses on how the social environment and current social climate play a role in motivating people to control their racial and sexual prejudices. For example, when people feel coerced into regulating their social biases (e.g., by others or society), negative attitudes toward other groups can be produced.
Lisa Legault, Assistant Professor of Psychology
“But, when people feel supported to explore diversity issues more freely, and when they are exposed to concrete information on the virtue of nonprejudice, they tend to be more motivated to reduce their prejudices at various levels,” explains Legault.
Legault says that groups tend to evaluate one another based on either explicit attitudes, which are determined by conscious reflection, or implicit attitudes, which are automatic and difficult-to-control evaluations. Many people are not aware of their specific implicit biases, which makes measuring them through carefully prepared behavioral studies a tricky — and fascinating — research task.
To do this, Legault develops intergroup studies that measure implicit biases through implicit association tests, which are based on reaction time when evaluating different groups. Legault then tests for connections between individuals’ motivational orientation and the magnitude of social bias. She hopes this will help her identify patterns that can be applied to diversity training and multicultural education.
“My students are heavily involved in all aspects of psychological research, from designing the study, to collecting and analyzing the data, to presenting it at conferences,” says Legault, who works with six to eight undergraduate research assistants in her motivation laboratory. The team logs about 400 participant hours each semester.
“Most people tend to want to be nonprejudiced,” says Legault. “However, people control or manage their biases for different reasons, and these reasons have a meaningful impact on how successful people are in reducing their prejudiced responses.”
Legault hopes her research will help pave the way toward more consistent awareness and action to eliminate prejudice from daily life. She’s now looking at how biases may be regulated using diversity education and determining what role diversity education has in anti-prejudice programming.
“The ultimate goal of my research is to reduce prejudice and promote more positive and harmonious intergroup attitudes and interactions. If we can get people to identify that there is value in diversity from a personal level, a social level and even an economic level, then we can move closer to prejudice reduction.”