What is at the intersection of psychology and prejudice?

November 29, 2018

Everyone has preconceived notions about the world around us; it is a fact. But where do these prejudices stem from and why do they exist? Jeremy Simon, a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology, was one of the five doctoral students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) to receive the 2018 University Prize Instructorship (UPI).

Simon is currently working at the Social Interaction and Motivation (SIM) Lab, under Dr. Jennifer Gutsell, with a focus on racial bias and dehumanization. Prior to coming to Brandeis, he worked at a non-profit organization in Brookline, MA.

As a history major during his undergraduate career, Simon turned to psychology to link his education in history and psychology. “I don’t want to just look back on the awful things people have done,” explained Simon. “I wanted to see what underpins these things. What do these histories have in common? This got me thinking about psychology.”

Reflecting on his choice, he realized that having the psychological perspective added to the relevance of his studies. “It’s natural to categorize people, it’s natural to prefer people who are like you in some way that’s there from birth,” said Simon. “It’s so easy to prey upon that difference because we’re wired to pay attention to that difference.”

Simon will be teaching a course titled, “The Psychology of Prejudice,” which will look into the psychological aspect of how humans view prejudice. “Our brains are designed to categorize things, it is way easier for us to see other people as members of certain categories than as individuals,” explained Simon. The class will look at the scientific literature surrounding this topic of categorization and what can be done to stop these automatic assumptions that humans instinctively have.

In Simon’s eyes, however, the largest takeaway is not what the students learn about the psychology of prejudice, but the processes that are obtained along the way. “Getting people to spend the time and read complex scientific works is a skill they’ll take with them and if there’s anything they’re interested in, that will give them the skills that they can then apply both to be informed members of society and whatever they want to do with their lives,” Simon said.

According to their website, the winning doctoral students were awarded a $6,000 stipend and the opportunity to design and teach their own course, specifically for undergraduates. Applicants were judged on their syllabus, recommendations from their own advisors and teaching fellow evaluations by the faculty committee. Each department chair from the applicant’s respective departments were also consulted to make sure that the proposed course was not too similar to other courses already offered.

Eric Chasalow, the dean of GSAS, said, “The University Prize Instructorship is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students. Teaching experience is an important aspect of the education that we provide at GSAS, and these doctoral candidates have already proven their abilities in the classroom. The program has added benefit of developing novel and exciting courses every year, which benefits our undergraduates and the university.”

“I’ve always been interested in teaching, particularly interested in this topic [psychology of prejudice] because I think there’s a lot to be gained in talking about it,” said Simon. While working at the non-profit organization before starting his Ph.D., he realized the value in teaching people about prejudice, which is something he realized everyone knew about, but didn’t talk about enough.

“It is a tremendous opportunity for me because there is not a lot of opportunities for graduate students to teach at Brandeis and I like teaching and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had,” explained Simon. “So the chance to teach my own course is an amazing chance and I think it’s a really important topic and I’m excited to shepard more people through the literature to see what there is, to see what psychology can tell us about one of the most important social issues we have for the last thousands of years of human existence.”

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