What are the consequences when a woman defies stereotypes by acting in masculine ways or succeeding in business? Or when black men act in a stereotypically white fashion? A $30,000 fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education will help one doctoral social psychology student explore these questions and travel to present her findings.
Second-year Rutgers University student Julie Phelan has earned a four-year Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, which will pay her tuition and fees and provide an annual stipend of up to $30,000 each year.
Phelan received her bachelor's degree, with majors in psychology and art, from Lafayette College in 2005. At Rutgers, her research has examined intergroup relations, with a focus on implicit social cognition. She began by studying women who experience backlash for violating stereotypes and is now expanding her research to ethnic deviance.
"I've always been interested in prejudice research," says Phelan. "When you research this sort of thing, the goal is to figure how to apply it to the real world and counteract prejudice." In one study, Phelan asks black male participants to sing karaoke-style country music — a skill typically associated with white men — in front of an experimenter who is posing as a talent agent searching for "natural charisma." The experimenter tells the participant they did a great job, but the participant overhears a confederate ostensibly watching a video of the performance who either praises the performance or denigrates it by saying things such as "What does that guy think he is, white?" Phelan then asks the participants whether they would be willing to publish their supposed success on a Web site and how likely they are to pursue their "talent."
Thus far, Phelan's findings support her hypothesis that the men who experience backlash are less enthusiastic about pursing their atypical talent, less likely to publicize their success and less able to identify with both country music and white people in general. Phelan has also found that social support from others — regardless of the relationship —increases people's ability to pursue counter stereotypical tasks.
"Just having one partner can give you the support you need to face the masses," she says. Phelan hopes her research will provide insight into how cultural stereotypes are maintained, with the ultimate goal of reducing prejudice.