Faculty Spotlight: Comparing Biases
A Look Inside Political Perception
By Shavantay Minnis
In politics, liberals and conservatives represent ends of a spectrum in political belief systems. Yet, research indicates the two may be more similar than we think, according to Geoffrey Wetherell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.
Wetherell, who joined FAU in 2020, said his research interests center around the beliefs and perceptions of groups of people, specifically those across the political divide. He examines people's perceptions that groups in society violate core values, which can lead to prejudice and discrimination towards those on the other end of the political spectrum.
"I began looking at perceptions of value violation and my research evolved into an examination of how people see each other and behave across the political divide" Wetherell said.
Prior to FAU, Wetherell was a native to San Diego where he earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from San Diego State University. He later earned his doctoral degree in psychology from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, and soon after became an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, Indiana, where his research on political perceptions continued to develop.
Currently, Wetherell is working on studies centering around worldview conflict. These studies examine the idea that people are willing to endorse values atypical of their political identification if it benefits them politically, and whether people understand when they are being intolerant.
"In these studies, we noticed conservatives were willing to endorse liberal values like universalism and benevolence more than liberals when it met their political aims, and vice versa, where liberals were willing to endorse conservative values like traditionalism and security when it met their political aims" he said. "They also seem to see political intolerance as less prejudiced and discriminatory, and more justifiable when it is in service of their political aims."
Here is more about Wetherell's research and future goals:
Q. Talk about your research focus.
A. My research focuses on perceptions of value violation and the way they relate to worldview conflict, prejudice, and discrimination in the political landscape. This research began with an examination of how stereotypes about social groups impact support for policies intended to help them. For example, if you feel people who would benefit from public healthcare violate the value of hard work, your beliefs could turn into a lack of support of public healthcare policies. You may see those people as undeserving and support a policy less.
From there my research extended to not just the public policies, but to groups of people in politics, like conservatives and liberals, and to worldview conflict. What my research emphasizes is that beliefs are often not based on facts, but rather biases. I examine how different groups of often have similar tendencies towards perceived value violators, even if it means endorsing discrimination or violence towards the opposing side.
Another component of my research program is an examination of our moral beliefs. Our moral beliefs guide us across situations and provide us with a sense of purpose. When someone disagrees with or opposes a person's beliefs, to a degree it becomes a threat to their identity, making intractable conflict especially difficult.
Q. What are your greatest goals and ambitions you set for research?
A. My greatest goals and ambitions for my research are to understand the factors that contribute to unproductive social and political conflict and to devise strategies to make unavoidable conflict more productive. Some conflict, such as spirited debate and attempts at compromise, is necessary and useful in democratic societies.
Q. What are some major milestones throughout your career?
A. Two of my major career milestones include mentoring undergraduate students who have now been accepted into high-ranking doctoral programs, and seeing my work on worldview conflict, and that of my collaborators, go mainstream.
Q. Do you have any advice for becoming a researcher in your field?
A. I would advise people who want to become researchers in my field not to attach their sense of self to a specific theory or perspective. When we study things like stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, sometimes we can see a theory or perspective that matches our value system as an extension of who we are. This is especially true for perspectives that we generate ourselves. This can make it difficult to see useful alternative perspectives. I would also suggest not taking criticism of one's work personally, but to view it as a vehicle to improve the quality of work and science more broadly.
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