University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Psychological Science

Spotlight on Research
Sylvia Perry, Ph.D.

Early Years

Sylvia PerrySylvia Perry

As a child, I often questioned how things worked. With glee I investigated the world around me. Much to my parents’ dismay, my favorite activities included taking things apart and asking the question “Why?”. In junior high and high school, this translated into a love for solving math problems and participating in class debates. Before entering college my parents were certain that I would either become a computer scientist or a lawyer—I did love arguing my point, after all. What they didn’t know was that, more than anything else, I was fascinated by the interactions I observed in my high school. I wanted to understand how students chose their peers, why they chose to identify with certain social groups, and why various social groups just didn’t seem to get along. By the time I reached the stage of writing my college application essay, I knew exactly what I wanted to become: a psychologist.

Undergraduate and Graduate Studies

Research Assistants Caroline Trevarrow and Wesley Ameden discuss some stimulus materials for a social cognitive development study.

While pursuing my undergraduate degree at the University of Richmond and the University of North Texas I realized that I didn’t fully understand what psychology entailed. Through working in a cognitive psychology research lab I learned that psychologists with a Ph.D. don’t just work as clinicians, but they also conduct rigorous research to answer the kinds of big questions that fascinated me in high school. Eventually, I came to understand that I was specifically interested in answering questions about why various groups underperform in academics, why Black and White individuals often have difficult interactions, and the cognitive processes behind these situations. These questions were social psychological in nature. Thus, I decided that I wanted to apply to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in social psychology.

As a graduate student, I was able to hone my skills in research methods. I pursued a line of experiments on the topic of how Whites respond to feedback about their biases, and how these responses are affected by their prior awareness of their biased tendencies. I termed this prior awareness “bias awareness” and worked closely with my advisor, Mary Murphy, to develop a measure for it. We investigated how this awareness affects Whites’ responses to feedback indicating they have a preference for White compared to Black people. My research showed that Whites who are higher in bias awareness are more accepting of this feedback, and this in turn motivates them to correct for their biases.

Post-Doctoral Fellowship and Current Research

Research Assistants Emily Arriviello and Joelle Dyer review the protocol for a computer-based lab study.

Toward the end of graduate school, I knew I wanted to pursue this line of work within a more applied setting: the medical domain. These interests led me to pursue a postdoc with Dr. Jack Dovidio at Yale University. During my time at Yale, I began working on the Medical Student CHANGE study with Dr. Dovidio and his collaborator, Dr. Michelle van Ryn, from the Mayo Clinic. This project allowed me to investigate how bias awareness is related to White medical students’ attitudes about working with racial minorities. Our findings showed that, for individuals who are high in explicit prejudice and high in bias awareness, interracial encounters can be particularly anxiety-provoking. As a result, these individuals are less interested in working with racial minorities. These results speak to the importance of reducing intergroup anxiety while increasing bias awareness.

With my current research at UVM, I continue to explore the effects of medical school racial climate on White and Black medical students’ post-medical school interests. I am also exploring how this climate affects White and Black students’ psychological well-being. Our research shows that, for African Americans who are high in racial identity, racial discrimination is more strongly associated with poor psychological well-being and self-esteem, and this happens as a result of a decreased sense of acceptance in medical school. Additionally, our lab is investigating the broader implications of intergroup bias. We are currently exploring several new lines of research, including a project in collaboration with Dr. Jamie Abaied on how White parents talk to their children about race, as well as a project on how people perceive those who admit they are racially biased. Our lab offers opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to be involved in various research activities, including helping us assess participants’ physiological responses to stress, programming computer-based studies, coding qualitative and video data, and serving as a confederate in interaction studies. Those who are interested in working in my lab should go to this link to learn more.