Faculty Spotlight

Jennifer Richeson

Understanding Stigma, Stereotypes, and Interracial Relations

Jennifer Richeson

From a “cute” fifth  grader with a C average to one of the nation’s preeminent scholars in interracial relations, IPR social psychologist Jennifer Richeson has forged a unique career and research trajectory.

On February 15, Richeson traced her distinctive path during her investiture as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair at Northwestern University.

Richeson began by pointing to her experiences with “identity shifts” between elementary school and her PhD program. The first occurred in moving from a mostly white, private elementary school to a mostly black, public middle school. In this diverse community of high-achieving students, her “jig” as a C-student was up; her grades “soared.”

“[It] was these experiences as one of a few black students in advanced classes juxtaposed with my racial majority status in the rest of my classes that first made questions of race, identity, and interracial interaction salient,” Richeson remarked. 

She continued her rising academic trajectory at a mostly black, all-girl high school where classes were more diverse. More importantly, however, the shift to single-sex classes instilled in Richeson the knowledge that women could succeed in math and science and positions of leadership.

Richeson carried this new gender identity to her undergraduate studies at Brown and her doctoral program at Harvard, where she continued to excel in her studies—all the while navigating the strata of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Her “a-ha” moment came at Brown, in a course on the psychology of race, class, and gender.

“These neuroscience and psychology courses posed some of the most fascinating questions that I could imagine,” Richeson recalled. “I never would have guessed that only a decade later I’d be engaging in human brain imaging myself to pursue questions of racial bias and intergroup contact.”

Revolutionizing Studies of Race

In addition to her personal experiences of interracial interactions, what sets Richeson apart from most researchers who study the topic has been her quest to explain how belonging to a certain group or race affects not just those in the minority group but also those in the majority—and then employing innovative methods, such as human brain imaging, to investigate them.

As a new assistant professor at Dartmouth, Richeson found a kindred spirit in Princeton psychologist Nicole Shelton.

“Rather than compete for the next 40-some years, Nicole and I decided to join forces and collaborate on research examining dynamics of interracial interactions,” Richeson laughed.

Their long-standing friendship and collaboration has led to several influential papers. In 2003, the two published their oft-cited study of majority-minority group relations in Psychological Science. In it, they used measures of cognitive functioning and prejudice to reveal that more prejudiced white participants displayed greater cognitive impairment following an interaction with a black participant. That same year in Nature Neuroscience, Richeson and her co-authors used fMRIs to measure participants’ brain activity in response to images of black and white individuals to predict how those same participants might fare during and after interracial interactions. This finding reconfirmed the former—that navigating interracial interactions can deplete cognitive abilities and executive functioning, especially for those who are more racially biased. 

In 2005, Richeson joined Northwestern. Motivated by her interactions with her colleagues and graduate students in psychology, African American studies, and at IPR, she expanded her research scope. She founded the Social Perception and Communication Lab to further her studies of how “people’s social group memberships—their race/ethnicity, gender, and more recently, socioeconomic status—shape how they think about themselves and others and how they behave.” She undertook investigations of interracial friendships and romance, gender-based test performance, and socioeconomic status and executive functioning, among others.

MacArthur Chair
Faculty celebrate Jennifer Richeson's chair investiture on February 15.
From left: Dean and IPR associate Sarah Mangelsdorf,
Jennifer Richeson, and IPR Director David Figlio.

On her birthday in 2006, the MacArthur Foundation rang her with the news that she had received one of its prized fellowships, the so-called “genius grant.” She had been singled out for providing a “novel way of examining and calculating the ‘costs’ associated with intergroup interactions.”

The five-year fellowship “served as a validation for the intellectual risks that I’d taken in my research,” Richeson said.

Her current projects, in particular those with her IPR colleagues and students, seek to tap into ways that such inter- and intragroup relations might be better understood across disciplines. With her colleagues in IPR's Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health—developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, psychobiologist Emma Adam, and former postdoctoral fellow Sophie Trawalter (now at the University of Virginia), Richeson has begun to dig into the potential health implications of interracial contact.

Richeson is also opening a new chapter in her research, seeking to translate more of it into viable public policy. In another project with IPR sociologist Leslie McCall, she will run experiments to investigate Americans’ views on inequality, opportunity, and redistribution. In a forthcoming article with Northwestern graduate student Maureen Craig, she explores what changing U.S. demographics might mean for race relations in 2042—when the racial majority is expected to tip from a white majority to a majority of minority groups.

Through these conversations and collaborations with her Northwestern and IPR colleagues, she finds challenge and inspiration.

“These interactions have also reminded me of why I became interested in social psychology in the first place—the potential to make a difference in the world,” Richeson said.

Jennifer Richeson is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair, professor of psychology, and an IPR fellow.

Selected References

Craig, M., and J. Richeson. 2013. On the precipice of a “majority–minority” nation: How the changing United States racial landscape affects white Americans’ racial attitudes and political ideology. Manuscript in preparation.

Richeson, J., A. Baird, H. Gordon, T. Heatherton, C. Wyland, S. Trawalter, and J. N. Shelton. 2003. An fMRI examination of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience 6(12): 1323-28.

Richeson, J., and J. N. Shelton. 2003. When prejudice does not pay: Effects of interracial contact on executive function. Psychological Science 14(3): 287-90.

Photos by Jim Ziv.