Science salon explores perception of threat, social identity

Chuck Kuan for WSN
Chuck Kuan for WSN

The old saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” received a psychological twist last night when Jenny Xiao, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in NYU’s social psychology program, presented her research titled, “See Your Friends Close and Enemies Closer: Social Identity and Threat after Distance Perception.”

A collaborative effort with psychology professor Dr. Jay Van Bavel, the project was initiated in the summer of 2010. Sponsored by the Coles Science Center at Bobst Library and part of the Coles Science Salon, the event showcased Xiao’s findings.

“These salons aim to open up the library not only as a place for research and studying but also as a place for lively discussion about ideas and research and as a place for intellectual socializing and networking,” said Kara M. Whatley, head of Coles Science Center.

“Our motivations and values shape how we perceive our world. For instance, some examples that have been used in studies are that if you are thirsty, you see a water bottle physically closer because you are motivated to see the water,” Xiao said.

In her research, Xiao examines how threats deceive our sense of physical distance — in Xiao’s research, physical distance means how far the threat is from us.

“Moreover, we show that this closeness in representation has consequences for downstream attitudes and behavioral intentions towards members of a threatening group,” she added.

Included in the five studies was the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox, a university identity threat between NYU and Columbia University and a threat between Mexican immigrants and U.S. citizens.

“You may be a New York Yankees fan, an NYU student and an American. Each of those comes with different goals and expectations about the world,” said Bavel. “When we are thinking about ourselves in terms of any of these identities, we tend to see the world through that lens.”

When Xiao and Bavel experimented with the studies, they found that if a person feels a threat, he or she believes the distance from the threat is closer than it is in reality.

“It was really interesting to know that the identity threat can alter your perception and I liked that they did the experiments in different contexts like the baseball game and then rival schools,” said Tony Wang, a fourth-year graduate student at Columbia University.

According to first-year marketing doctoral degree candidate Danny Xu, Xiao’s presentation helped him better understand baseball marketing.

“Especially when it comes to baseball, I can see this talk being applied in different areas. I might be able to apply this to my own field also,” Xu said.

Xiao has won numerous awards for her research, including the Graduate Student Outstanding Research Award presented by the Society of Personality and Social Psychology.

Neela Qadir is a deputy university editor. Email her at [email protected]

Chuck Kuan for WSN
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