Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Neil Hester talks to In The Spotlight about his work on how intersecting social categories shape our initial impressions of others.
Research Area: Social & Personality Psychology
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Eric Hehman
Tell us a bit about yourself: I grew up in West Texas and attended my hometown university, Texas Tech. At the time, I really liked thinking about the big theoretical questions that philosophers and artists ask about people, but felt that an objective approach to answering these questions would be more satisfying for me. So, I decided to study psychology.
For my doctorate, I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study moral psychology, which pulled together my undergraduate interests in race issues, gender issues, and religious beliefs. My work increasingly focused on person perception and stereotyping, which is why I came to McGill to work with Dr. Eric Hehman. His lab does really awesome and creative work on person perception, stereotyping, and discrimination, so I’m excited to be here!
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: Social categories such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. shape our initial impressions of others. I study how these categories intersect with each other to produce unique patterns of stereotyping and discrimination for specific groups (e.g., young Black men). I have a particular emphasis on how the basic process of forming impressions causally relates to discriminatory patterns in domains such as policing and hiring.
What excites you most about your research? I really enjoy most of the stages of research—brainstorming, analyzing data, writing papers—but don’t think I’d want to do any of those things all the time. Getting to switch back and forth keeps things really fresh. Plus, there’s a unique challenge into smoothly fitting the different pieces together, which is fun in its own right.
Is there any recent or upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? I have a paper in press that explores how intersectional discrimination is causally associated with stereotyping. This type of discrimination occurs when two or more identities combine to yield especially harmful outcomes: for example, Black men are disproportionately stopped by police officers in a way that cannot be explained by the effects of just being Black or just being male.
One really intuitive way to explain intersectional discrimination is with matching intersectional stereotypes, such as Black men also being perceived as especially threatening. However, we show that these complex patterns of discrimination can sometimes emerge from simple stereotypes (e.g., Black people being perceived as more threatening than White people AND men being perceived as more threatening than women), so this form of discrimination requires no intersectional stereotyping. It’s a unique paper that uses data simulations to make a basic point about how attitudes connect to behaviors.
Do you have an interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share? A few years ago, I put together an EP called Sunfall with a singer-songwriter friend. We’re currently working on another set of songs, which I’m pretty excited about!
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? Socially distanced activities carry the day right now, so I’ll go with practicing the violin and playing video games with old college friends!
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? Be prepared to be rejected a lot. Do not viewing any individual failure as a reflection of your own abilities. Remember that short-term results can actually be pretty random (like patterns in small data sets). If you experience some early failures, this is not evidence that you are “not smart enough” for research—believe in yourself, take care of yourself, and keep working. This is especially important for younger students for two reasons: one, you don’t really have any long-term patterns to observe, and two, you may not be used to receiving such negative outcomes and feedback.
This topic makes me think of the Philadelphia 76ers, a storied NBA franchise that has lost a LOT of games in the last 10 years. In 2014, the team adopted “trust the process” as their guiding principle, ignoring present outcomes in favor of good practices. The next year, they lost over 90% of their games, but now they are one of the better teams in the league. Trust the process.
How can people contact you? I can be reached @neilrhester on Twitter or by e-mail at neilrhester [at] gmail.com.