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W&L Students’ Research on Stereotypes of Arab Muslims Wins Psychology Award

Two student researchers and one alumnus at Washington and Lee University have won a Regional Research Award from Psi Chi—the National Honor Society in Psychology—at the Midwestern Psychology Association (MPA) National Conference. The conference organizers also encouraged the students to submit their research for publication in the Psi Chi Journal.

Seniors Eric Shuman and Astrid Pruitt will present their research, “Do Stereotypes and Prejudice against Arab Muslims Serve a Detachment Function?” at the MPA conference in Chicago in May 2014. Their work was chosen from among 630 abstracts submitted to the conference; only a fraction of those submissions received an award. “We had a high-quality pool of abstracts, and it is a genuine achievement to be receiving this recognition,” the MPA said in announcing the award.

Shuman, from Black Mountain, N.C., is the first author of the research and is a dual-degree candidate at W&L in psychology and global politics. He recently received the 2013 David G. Elmes Pathfinder Prize in Psychology, which recognizes a student who has shown extraordinary promise in psychological science through outstanding scholarship in basic or applied psychology.

Astrid Pruitt, a psychology and Chinese double major from Tampa, Fla., who is also a Danish citizen, co-authored the research. The third co-author, Alina Marciniak, graduated from Washington and Lee in 2013.

The research arose in the class of Julie Woodzicka, professor of psychology at W&L, who was extremely pleased with her students’ achievement. “They are both very good students, and it’s very nice when good things happen to good people,” she said.

Woodzicka explained that psychology is research-based, and that W&L’s psychology department teaches students through linked courses. In the first course, students learn all the content and tools they need to carry out research and write a proposal. In the second course, they carry out the research, from recruiting participants all the way through to writing a paper. “That’s rare,” said Woodzicka, “and I think it’s one of the things we do best in this department.”

“We learn so much from actually having to create all these measures and learning how to analyze data and the structure we need to carry out a project,” said Shuman. “It’s not something you can acquire from sitting in a lecture-style course.”

The team recruited 75 W&L students as participants in the study, which centered on the under-researched area of whether stereotypes about Arab Muslims enable people to distance themselves from disturbing events.

Using articles and a video of the aftermath of missile strikes in the Middle East, they demonstrated that when people felt responsible for the violence against Arab Muslims, they activated in their minds stereotypes of Arab Muslims in order to detach themselves from the acts, and thereby lessen their feelings of responsibility.

The research assessed how detached the subjects were by collecting their galvanic skin responses, such as how much electricity their skin conducted or how sweaty their palms were. “Your skin conducts more electricity when you are physiologically aroused,” explained Shuman,” because your palms start sweating a tiny bit more.”

“We found that when people were in the detachment condition and were reading about the United States being mainly to blame for Muslim misfortune, they actually had less of a physiological response when watching the video,” explained Pruitt. “That was exactly what we were looking for.”

Bob Stewart, associate professor of psychology at W&L, showed the students how to use the equipment to collect the data. Tyler Lorig, the Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology at W&L, demonstrated the best way to analyze the data.

“It’s fairly easy to collect all this data,” said Shuman, “but then analyzing it is a lot more difficult. They both gave us a lot of their time, and we weren’t even in their class.” Woodzicka agreed: “Their help was really instrumental.”

“By learning about biological responses, we got to experience a different side of psychology,” said Pruitt.

“It’s always good to have another tool in your toolbox,” agreed Shuman. “Having another area of expertise when you think about research questions is really valuable, because maybe that’s a better way to answer some questions.”