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James Marshall Scholar Report

Jutta Tobias, James Marshall Scholar, 2009-10


As I look back over almost two years as James Marshall Scholar with SPSSI and APA, I have come to appreciate just how different academic audiences are from policy-makers, and that public policy advocacy is a challenging job. Understanding people and what motivates them in their social interactions is certainly critical for success in this industry (if calling it an “industry” does its multidimensionality justice). So being a social psychologist has helped, and I hope that by crossing over into the world of public policy, I became somewhat of a boundary spanner between academic research and policy-making.

How exactly does social psychology inform the public policy process? Two items jump out at me immediately; prejudice reduction and the power of persuasive negotiation.

Let’s talk about outgroup prejudice and its reduction through intergroup contact first: As part of my work during the last two years, I have mingled (infiltrated?) and collaborated with policy buffs, political junkies, lawyers even. It takes all sorts to create sound policy! SPSSI can help in this, and among my most useful contributions during my tenure were brokering the contact between our members and policy-makers. Note that a useful operational definition of “reduction in prejudice” by policy-makers towards scientists would be: seeking out, and valuing, the other group’s input, rather than dismissing it out of hand. Establishing trust relationships with policy-makers and advocacy groups, so that for example they call upon us to provide input into upcoming policy initiatives, is a vital component of this work. An example of this was my collaboration with advocacy groups and Congressman Pete Stark’s initiative to introduce LGBT parenting legislation this past spring.

In addition, following SPSSI Fellow Marilynn Brewer’s Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, bridging the gap between science and policy involves providing opportunities for cross-cutting role assignments, where the scientist’s and the policymaker’s respective motivations of assimilation and differentiation mutually complement each other. According to the theory, prejudice and discrimination would be reduced following contact in such a jigsaw collaborative setting. A Congressional briefing is a perfect occasion for this. Indeed, bringing a SPSSI researcher to Capitol Hill, watching the fruitful exchange between scholar and agenda-setter, and afterwards chatting with the SPSSI member about how much more productive the interaction had been than she had expected; these were some of my proudest moments as James Marshall Fellow. Several times, I mused with APA and SPSSI members who had just finished their policy briefing on Capitol Hill about our own stereotypes about policy-makers during these conversations, and laughed at our realization that people in politics and policy are “just so human!”

 The other significant insight about the link between social psychology and policy has been that public policy is a never-ending negotiation, and policy-makers are always looking for insights on how to best frame their arguments. SPSSI can provide a scientific and ethical service, by sharing our insights on the theory behind effective message framing, communication, and persuasion, and how these theories can be applied to particular social issues. During all my discussions with people on Capitol Hill, my conversation partners were especially interested in science-based insights on how to ethically manipulate the ambiguous social situation that is policy-making through the most appropriate message frames. Of course, they were interested in practical tools to help with their persuasive efforts! But more importantly, I found it gratifying to share the (sometimes surprising) insights on this topic with my policy-maker and advocacy audiences.

Especially progressive public policy advocacy groups were also interested in the affective component of persuasion, and a workshop series on this topic that I ran with climate change grassroots activists proved popular, and seemed to meet a demand for this type of knowledge exchange. It is my hope that this contributed at several levels to eliciting positive emotions in and through collaboration with policy-makers, in line with the teachings of illustrious SPSSI member Dan Shapiro’s work at the Harvard International Negotiation Project. Arguably, policy-making is (or at least should be) similar to how Shapiro describes disagreements: “an opportunity for mutual gain”.

What is on my personal horizon? I decided to stay close to the world of applied field research and accepted a faculty position at Cranfield Management School in the UK. Wish me luck; I’ll be the only psychologist working amongst a team of management and economics professors. The theme of boundary-hopping and intergroup infiltration (perhaps a better frame: befriending) seems to follow me through life.


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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin