Jennifer Richeson, Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and the director of the Social Perception and Communication Lab at Yale, was announced the winner of the 2020 SAGE-CASBS Award on Sept. 22. 

Richeson is a highly accomplished social psychologist who also won the 2020 Carnegie Mellon Senior Fellowship and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The SAGE-CASBS Award is a recognition from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in partnership with SAGE Publishing. The award, created in 2013, honors leading social scientists whose research provides insights on how to better address social issues, according to the CASBS. CASBS and SAGE Publishing hope for it to someday become the most elite award for social scientists worldwide.

“The fact that they’re recognizing the work that she’s doing is just huge,” said Sa-Kiera Hudson, a post-doctoral associate at Richeson’s Social Perception and Communication Lab. “We’re always proud of all the stuff that she does, but this is just one of the many things.” 

Richeson’s work revolves around the psychology of discrimination and how people interact with different sociocultural groups.

“We don’t need to rely on our assumptions or ‘conventional wisdom’ about certain issues and dynamics,” Richeson said. “We can turn to social science for answers. Or at least part of the answer. And, once you know how or why something is happening, then you can develop plausible interventions.”

Richeson has written and contributed to more than 100 peer-reviewed journals and book chapters, according to CASBS, and her most recent work is an article in the September issue of the Atlantic titled “The Mythology of Racial Progress.” In the article, Richeson discusses the widely held misconception that racial equality improves continuously and constantly.

Through her research, Richeson found that Americans believe society is more equitable than it actually is. For instance, people wildly underestimate the wealth gap between the white and African American populations in the U.S.

For example, 2016 respondents to a study done in 2019 by Richeson and Michael W. Kraus, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, guessed that a Black family has 90 dollars of wealth for every 100 dollars possessed by a white family. In reality, the correct figure for the year was 10 dollars. Richeson and her lab attribute this to a strong belief in American social mobility.

“If you disrupt beliefs about the American dream, you actually get more accuracy in people’s judgments,” Hudson said. “We’ve extended this to gender, so we found that if you ask people about the gender gap, they also [underestimate].”

One of Richeson’s main lines of research looks at the importance of America’s changing demographics. The United States will be a “majority minority” country by 2060, according to Hudson, and Richeson is investigating how people are responding to this demographic shift.  

These changes are a numerical threat to the “white dominance” in America, according to Chelsea Ilarde ’21, a senior undergraduate research assistant in the SPCL. 

Hudson, who studies how social hierarchies like this one are formed and maintained as well as the human emotions that reinforce them, said that “it’s not just [that] we think the group on top should be on top, but usually that’s the group that is larger [in population].”

She explained that hierarchies depend on both stability and the idea that they are legitimate, that there is a reason for one group to be in power over another.

Hudson’s research also focuses on counter-empathy: schadenfreude — happiness at another’s misfortune — and gluckschmerz, a term for sadness at another’s good luck or success. Her research looks at the societal consequences of feeling these emotions toward other social groups.

“The more that you believe that some groups should be on the top and others should be at the bottom, the more likely you are to want to feel emotions in line with that belief,” Hudson said.

Other projects of the SPCL include researching people’s reactions to explicit and implicit bias, as well as how they interpret algorithmic bias such as through internet search engines or in the healthcare setting.

“My work on the role of concerns about the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States (and other contexts) in shaping our racial attitudes and policy preferences has proved itself to be especially relevant to so many current dynamics in society, especially so much of the political discourse we are witnessing,” Richeson said. “Psychological science has played a role in our nation’s trajectory toward these ends in the past … there is no reason why we should not be doing the same in this moment.” 

Richeson will give an acceptance lecture for the SAGE-CASBS Award in 2021.

Emilia Oliva | emilia.oliva@yale.edu