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MacArthur "Genius" Award Winner Paluck Discusses Social Norms


Princeton University Professor and 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Award winner Betsy Levy Paluck presented innovative research on the effects of social norms and community behavior in a lecture at Hamilton on Nov. 5.

Paluck’s presentation, Reducing Prejudice and Bullying in Our World Today: The Role of Social Norms, was this year’s James S. Plant Distinguished Scientist Lecture. Paluck dedicated her presentation to Devah Pager, a dear friend and fellow social psychologist whose research on race, crime and mass incarceration broke new ground in understanding racial discrimination in America.

Paluck’s presentation focused on social norms and their dynamism. “Who has a say in them?” she asked the audience. “Social norms belong to groups,” she said, meaning that social groups have agency regarding their social norms and groups can actively change them.

Paluck presented her approach to social norms through a variety of social circumstances. She described her findings from studying attempted reductions in conflict in 56 New Jersey middle schools, her studies of the effects of media programming on social norms following the Rwandan genocide, and the effects of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on our perceptions of social norms. In each example, people were impacted by media, their community, and institutions and changed their perception of social norms while often keeping their personal attitudes unchanged.

In Rwanda, Paluck found that media played a large role in shaping Rwandans’ perception of social norms, and isolated the violence from personal attitudes towards the persecuted group, the Tutsi. In New Jersey middle schools, she found that the best way to reduce conflict was to make it a student-led process. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court, she found that after a landmark decision, people’s perception of social norms often changed overnight, but their personal attitudes did not.

Paluck’s research is encouraging for those who believe in community-based solutions. “Collaboration works,” she told the audience. “You have to work with [people]. You can’t just tell people what to say.”

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