Department of Psychological Science
Spotlight on Research
Elizabeth "Liz" Pinel, Ph.D.
Jim Hamilton taught me two classes that changed my life. The first was on theoretical perspectives in psychology. As a broad thinker prone to doing some theorizing of my own, this class really hooked me in! Jim encouraged me to take another class with him, this time an advanced course in social psychology. To take it, I would have to attend summer school and complete the prerequisite (an introductory social psychology), but this was a small price to pay to take the course that steered me right into my career path.
It turns out that Jim's advanced social psychology course concentrated on the self, a topic that has turned into my passion. For the first time since arriving at college, I would mull over what I had learned in class long after the day had ended. I remember one time forcing my sister to listen to my rendition of objective self-awareness theory and all of the cool supporting research while she cut my hair. In the words of Lou-Ann from The King of the Hill, I had "psychology; the disease of psychology!"
Wanting to dive into social psychology even deeper, I asked Jim what study abroad options would enable me to do just that. He suggested that I study "abroad" in Colorado Springs with a social psychologist by the name of Tom Pyszczynski. Tom and his collaborators Jeff Greenberg and Sheldon Solomon had been working on a theory called terror management theory, one that has now earned an esteemed position in the field of social psychology. Together with Tom, I pursued work on how the knowledge of their own mortality influences people's thought, feeling, and behavior. The theory's emphasis on the importance people place on prediction and control particularly caught my attention and turns out to be a thread that runs through my work to this day.
Graduate Studies at The University of Texas at Austin
Further convinced that I had found my calling, I sat down with Tom and, once back in New York State, with Jim and identified a list of graduate schools where I could pursue advanced training on the self in social psychology. I ultimately landed at The University of Texas at Austin, where I worked both with Bill Swann and Dan Gilbert. With Bill I pursued research on the self, particularly on the importance of surrounding oneself with people who see us as we see ourselves. Once again, in this work, the need for prediction and control got emphasized. With Dan, I worked on people's understanding of their own feelings. We learned that people overestimate how long it will take them to recover from upsetting events, as well as that people do not realize how good they are at making themselves feel okay with their situation. Interestingly, people's lack of awareness about their ability to rationalize sometimes leads them to attribute their situation to fate, magic, or an invisible hand.
While pursuing the above research with Bill and Dan, two papers caught my attention and ultimately served as a catalyst for my dissertation work. One was Steele and Aronson's (1995) paper on stereotype threat; the other was Crocker and Major's (1988) paper on the self-protective properties of stigma. I became especially interested in the plight of those subjected to widespread stereotypes, particularly in terms of how they manage to get people to see them as they see themselves. After many days and nights of thinking, reading, and writing, I decided to study the variability that characterizes targets of stereotypes. In particular, I developed the concept of stigma consciousness: individual differences in the extent to which targets of stereotypes feel self-conscious about their stereotyped status. For many years that followed, I devoted practically all of my research attention to identifying the consequences of high levels of stigma consciousness. I learned that high levels can be deleterious, as evidenced most poignantly in research showing that academically stigmatized, ethnic minority students who experience an increase in stigma consciousness upon arriving at a primarily White university suffer academically. Moreover, those who do not suffer academically experience a drop in self-esteem. Research of this kind alerts us to the need to work on ways to create academic environments that prevent the skyrocketing of stigma consciousness levels.
As I became more ensconced in my life as a professor, I began to pursue other interests. Most recently I have concentrated a lot of my attention on the construct of I-sharing, or shared subjective experience. I propose that I-sharing underlies profound interpersonal connections and that it serves as an interpersonal epoxy because of its unique ability to ease feelings of existential isolation. This work has important implications for all kinds of relationships: family ties, friendships, parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, and even intergroup relationships.
We are pursuing research on almost all of these kinds of connections and have found some exciting results. For instance, an I-sharing experience between members of two different groups (e.g., heterosexual men and gay men) can make them like each other more than they like a non-I-sharing member of their own group! This research may very well pave the path toward an effective means of promoting intergroup harmony. It's an exciting time in our research lab and we invite you to check out some of the action!