EEG, Amherst, and the Psychology of Prejudice: An interview with Prof. Jeremy C. Simon

Over the summer, Nigel Jaffe ’22 spoke via Zoom with Professor Jeremy C. Simon, who will join the Psychology Department as a visiting assistant professor for the 2020-21 academic year. Check out this interview along with other articles on the department’s News & Newsletters page.

NJ: The first thing that stood out to me from your bio on the new faculty page is that you share an area of scholarship with our own Prof. Steven Fein, whose PSYC/WGSS seminar focuses on stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. In that vein, the lab you were a part of at Brandeis studies how group biases and dehumanization play into the way we perceive and interact with others. Tell me more about your time at Brandeis, where you earned your doctorate earlier this year!

JCS: It’s wild to talk about it in the past tense. It was a lot of fun, honestly. I think that was something people didn’t prepare me for. Getting a PhD is stressful—it’s a lot of work—but it’s so much fun. 

The lab I was in is a social neuroscience lab, and I was pursuing two lines of research. One used EEG (electroencephalography) to answer questions like, how much are you processing other people? Are you neurally representing what they’re doing? And if not, why not? But at the same time, I was also trying to pursue a more “Feinian,” classically social-psychological approach. 

My dissertation on dehumanization combined the two. It had a number of purely behavioral experiments, asking, when do we notice other people’s humanity? And then there was also a study where we looked at dehumanization in an interaction between two people wearing EEG caps. So we could actually look at the relationship between my brain and your brain when we’re sitting and having a conversation. Then, if we could see any variance in how human we perceived one another to be—and indeed we could, scarily enough—we could look at how that’s related to what’s happening in our brains.

Going back a little further, it’s no secret that you spent your undergraduate years at Amherst. Readers might be surprised to learn that as an undergrad there, you weren’t a psychology major. How did you end up discovering a passion for social psychology?

At Amherst, I majored in history, and in the course of that experience, I studied a lot of terrible events. I took a whole course on the Holocaust, I wrote a research paper on the Rwandan genocide, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the questions of how and why people can be so awful. 

I ended up not wanting to study more history, but instead, the underpinning psychology of unthinkable behavior. When you have these massive intergroup conflicts, people will dehumanize the rival group, and that facilitates prejudice and, in extreme cases, atrocities. But actually, subtly, that same process is playing out day-to-day in more mundane ways. The sheer number of things that call on our attention at any given time can prevent us from seeing every person we pass as being complex, and having their own desires and goals. Sometimes that turns into something far worse; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s what really interests me. Why is it that people sometimes do terrible things on the basis of that judgment? 

You’ll be one of several Amherst alums teaching at Williams this year. Why did you decide to come to the Purple Valley? 

You’re being very mature about this: I was going to ask if there was, like, a blacklist of professors with Amherst degrees!

I think if anything, you’re held in higher esteem for having come over to the dark side.

You’ll just have to hope I’m not a double agent! But yeah, I really enjoyed my time at Amherst. I’ve totally bought into the liberal arts project. I think that the most important thing I got out of college in terms of worldview is a focus on asking how we know what we know. And that, in part, is what led me to psychology; I was attracted to its tools for answering questions in ways that history can’t.

Coming to teach at Williams was a no-brainer opportunity. Here, I can talk to students who are engaged in this questioning: not only, what is this world? but also, how do we know what we know about it? And why are we asking the questions that we’re asking? Moreover, Williams is a place that really, really values teaching. It was fun to teach during graduate school, but it was always a balancing act. My advisor, who is wonderful and committed to her teaching, told me straight-up, early in graduate school: your priority is number one, your research, number two, your research, number three, your courses, and number four, teaching. But here, my job for the next year is to teach as well as I can, and that is really exciting.

On that note, why don’t you tell me about the courses you’ll be teaching this year at Williams? 

Yeah! So, in the fall, I’ll be teaching “The Psychology of Prejudice.” It’s a 300-level empirical lab course, and the goal of the class is to look closely at questions like, why are people prejudiced? When are people prejudiced? And what can we do about it? We’ll do that by reading the cutting edge of current scientific literature. I’m going to assign papers that are only a few years old, and the seminar portion of the class is going to mostly be discussion. I want to dive into these papers to understand how we know the things we know about prejudice, and to ask, what are we missing? Why is prejudice so widespread? And why is it inherent? (Because it is.) 

Then the lab portion is going to give students the chance to conduct their own studies. We’re going to run those studies on Mechanical Turk, meaning students will not only develop research questions but will actually have the chance to test them, which I find incredibly exciting (and I hope that students in the class will as well). 

And then, in the spring, I’ll be teaching one of the sections of PSYC 201: Experimentation and Statistics, which I’m excited for because I haven’t heard of another school that combines stats and methods. I think it’s a great idea, and it’ll be a really fun teaching challenge.

Got it. In the hopes that a few enterprising young social-psych students will be reading this, what kind of research projects will you be working on this year?

To graduate on time, I had to really throw myself into my dissertation, which means that I’m at the starting point for a bunch of projects. This year, I’m hoping to work with RAs on them, to bring in students and hear their ideas and get them involved at the very start of these projects. 

I’m particularly interested in dehumanization and politics. There is a lot of research—and I’ve collected data showing this myself—on the different ways that Democrats and Republicans dehumanize, and the different groups that they dehumanize, and I’m curious about how the ideologies in these groups lead to the patterns that we see. 

I also want to start studying structural racism. There’s clearly a reciprocal relationship between individual prejudice and structural prejudice; they both reinforce one another. I’d like to look at how you can modify institutions to diminish both of them. 

And then I’ve been doing research for a while looking on how people perceive demographics: your perception of the diversity of the United States seems related to how prejudiced you are, and how conservative you are, but that research still hasn’t quite found traction. So I’m going to be running a couple more studies on that, looking at whether it’s a sense of diversity as changing versus a sense of your own group losing power that drives threat and, by extension, prejudice.

What strikes me about your research is the fact that intergroup prejudice is regularly explored in other fields as well—researchers in the social sciences study topics like racism, too, but they leave the EEG at home. 

Unfortunately I think EEG work will only be possible at home until this virus subsides. In any case, I hope to move my research into more applied areas, possibly converging with researchers in other fields. 

For example, my dissertation looked at medical and criminal justice contexts. It’s hardly a stretch to say that dehumanization takes place in the criminal justice system, but it also turns out there’s a lot of dehumanization in medicine: doctors are in fact trained to see patients as collections of parts. I looked at those concepts in very abstract ways in my dissertation, but I would love to collaborate further with doctors, with people in the criminal justice system, and then also with other social scientists who are doing this work outside the laboratory.

If all goes to plan, you’ll be teaching in-person on campus in the fall. What do you expect to be getting up to in your free time in the Berkshires?

What am I going to do in my free time in the age of COVID? It’s really a big question. Amherst refers to itself as “the singing college,” and I was a proud participant in that tradition. My main organized recreational activity for years has been singing. I’m the rare and embarrassing adult who still does acapella post-college, but I don’t know when people are going to be able to sing together in person: you can’t do it with a mask, and you can’t do it without a mask, and those are your options. So I do a lot of cooking and baking, and I’d say my main pastime these days is just walking around, so I’m excited to hike around and see new places.

My wife is finishing up her PhD at MIT, so I’m living in Cambridge now, but we’re moving into an apartment in Williamstown in a week. Given COVID, my wife never really has to go into her lab anymore, so I’ll probably be spending much more of my time in Williamstown than was originally expected. I want to spend as much time on campus as I feel gets me (safe) contact with students, both in and outside the classroom, and I want to be able to run a lab and be present. So it remains to be seen, like everything else right now.

Well, here’s hoping for a smooth start to the fall semester!