Mina Cikara is a Psychology professor that studies discrimination, conflict, and harm using social psychological and cognitive neuroscience approaches.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
FM: Tell me a bit about yourself — where did you grow up, how did that influence you?
MC: I grew up in Southern California, specifically in the San Fernando Valley. My parents are first-generation immigrants from former Yugoslavia.
My parents both put an incredibly high premium on education, in part also because of the socialist nature of former Yugoslavia. There was an idea that there was a cap on how far you could ascend and that there was less control over your own outcomes in that kind of a place. And so even though people could come along, and reclaim property, or any of your belongings, the thing that was given to you that no one can ever take away from you is your education.
I think I had a pretty typical Valley rat upbringing. I did Girl Scouts and was very into school and took piano lessons. And then as I got older, I got more into the punk scene and the riot girl scene. And then I went to a lot of shows. And it was great, because you have this proximity to Los Angeles and Hollywood, and there were a lot of great concerts and bands coming through all the time, so just like a really rich cultural experience for me.
FM: Why did you start studying psychology in particular?
MC: I started studying psychology because I wanted to be a forensic psychologist after I watched “Silence of the Lambs.” I wanted to be Clarice Starling, and I thought that I would end up in the FBI, and I would be profiling serial killers.
All the way up through undergraduate thought I was going to be a clinical psychologist.
I ended up needing to get more experience after college before going to graduate school, and I did that. So I worked as a behavioral therapist for autistic children for two years between undergrad and graduate, and I applied to a bunch of clinical programs.
I realized the thing that I love the most is research, and the issues that still continue to fascinate me were ones more related to prejudice, discrimination, and conflict polarization.
FM: I want to know a bit more about how, once you got to Princeton, this interest started to develop even more.
MC: I was torn, because I was very interested in social psychology, but I was also deeply interested in neuroscience. At the time, there was this burgeoning field of social neuroscience, and it was mostly younger faculty, including a bunch of folks here, like Jason Mitchell and Josh Green, who were integrating the methodologies of cognitive neuroscience with some of the theories of social psychology.
I had this amazing adviser — I mean, she’s literally the mother of social cognition, she wrote the book with a co-author — Susan Fiske.
Her idea was, look, get a really good foundation in social psychology, start to practice doing the cognitive neuroscience stuff here in graduate school, and then go do a postdoc in the best possible place that’s going to teach you the most cutting-edge methodology in cognitive neuroscience. And that’s basically what I ended up doing.
FM: Tell me a bit about some projects you’re currently working on and how are they going?
MC: I think stuff that I’m most excited about is really work that’s happening at the intersection of many different areas within the social sciences. I have really what I find to be incredibly exciting collaborations going with some folks in political science and economics.
We are really interested in how changes in people’s local demographic circumstances, or the distributions of which groups are around, generates hierarchies of hatred. So the idea is that, if you are in California versus Alabama versus Maine, you have incredibly different distributions of marginalized populations in those places. It turns out that what those distributions are what really matter for who’s most likely to get targeted with negative attitudes and hate crimes.
The idea is that the group that’s biggest in your local social ecology is going to be the one that is perceived as most threatening for majority group members, and that those folks are going to be the greatest recipients of negative attitudes, discrimination, and behaviors like hate crimes.
FM: What would you say is one of the most important papers you’ve published?
MC: I think the hate crimes paper.
But the bigger picture, that it for me matters quite a bit is that I think, for a really long time, within social psychology, specifically, we put too great an emphasis on social categories.
In so doing, have kind of reified, essentializing those categories.
FM: A lot of your work has connections into the real world. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about in what ways you think it translates into practical implications or even applications both on a broader societal level but also just in small scale interpersonal interactions.
MC: I remain incredibly humble about just how applicable any of the stuff I’ve done thus far is. I think that it helps to signpost places we should be looking, and it also raises a lot of really important questions about where we’re lacking data. For example, oftentimes when I talk about the demographic rank-ordering effects in hate crimes and prejudice, folks ask me questions like, “Well, what about religious-based identities or sexual orientation?” The bottom line is, we just don’t have enough data on the distribution of where those folks live.
So better census data, better surveying data, being able to identify where folks are and where they might be most vulnerable, and then funneling services and support networks there. Just because a particular person has a given identity doesn’t mean they’re equally at risk in all different places. So trying to be able to figure out how we could use what we are learning from some of this work to then deploy limited resources, I think, could be one potential application.
FM: Discrimination and intergroup conflict has been super prominent here in the U.S. these last couple years. So I was wondering, based on the research you’ve done, what do you some of the drivers of these trends?
MC: Social psychology is rife with theorizing about all of the different inputs to intergroup conflict. There are many and they are multiply determined and they are incredibly complex. The classic explanation is economic threat: New people come in, and they’re taking our jobs, or they are making it harder for my family to be able to survive. There are, very recently, pathogenic threats: These people bring disease or have the capacity to weaken the polity by introducing some sort of virus. There are symbolic threats: These people being here will change my way of life. There are physical threats: These people pose an actual physical threat to me and my loved ones, they are less likely to be able to live happy, healthy, free lives by virtue of these people being here. And so on, and so forth.
I think one of the things that’s been really shocking to me is how blatant I’ve seen some political actors be in pulling these levers.
FM: Obviously there’s no single solution, but what do you think are some psychologically informed ways to minimize or alleviate some of this conflict?
MC: I think the bottom line is that psychological interventions will only get you so far and are maybe most effective in very, very local ways. That is, making it easier for people to talk to each other, potentially making people less subject to misinformation.
What it can’t do, though, is tackle structural issues. It doesn’t deal with the fact that institutions are built and maintained on the requirement that some people are privileged over others.
FM: Psychology has traditionally received a for not being a “real science.” How do you respond to that belief?
MC: I guess it depends on who I’m talking to who harbors that belief.
For me, this is partially why I teach research methods in the Psychology Department. I want people to understand the logic of the scientific method and show folks just how it can play out.
I think it’s exciting to be able to show people that psychological concepts, constructs, problems, challenges, they are subject to the same kinds of methodological inquiries that other sciences are.
One of my favorite quotes is actually from one of my colleagues Mahzarin Banaji.
She said, “Psychology isn’t rocket science, it’s harder.”
It’s harder, because we’re dealing in non-deterministic systems. People are random. They can be predictable in some ways, but there’s also tons of contextual variation.
But to me, that doesn’t mean that the problem is intractable. It just means it’s more exciting.
FM: Psychology, like many, many other fields, has been traditionally very straight-white-male-dominated. I was wondering how your experience has been in the field as a woman studying the things that you’re studying, which include discrimination and bias and all that?
MC: Psychology has pretty good numbers on gender distributions, I would say, with respect to other sciences. I feel incredibly privileged I would say. I’m a white woman with degrees from Princeton and MIT, I have incredible amount of privilege, and so I have not felt marginalized within psychology. But that is not to say that it doesn’t have a long, long ways to go, like so many other disciplines in academia.
Certainly I’ve had experiences where my gender has become incredibly salient, and I have felt as though I’m being evaluated not solely on the basis of my ideas or contribution, or there are expectations that people have of me by virtue of my gender, or my appearance, or even the fact that I said “like” a lot when I first started graduate school, because I grew up in California.
FM: Who would you say has been one of your biggest inspirations or sources of support throughout all this?
MC: My graduate advisor, Susan Fiske, I would jump in front of a bus for. Without hesitation. She is singularly responsible for my life as I know it now. I mean, maybe after my parents.
She introduced me to my science, she introduced me to my husband, she married us. I have two sons because I met my husband at a lab party of hers.
But even if she didn’t give me any of that, she gave me the legacy of her research, which I think is something totally without comparison.
FM: Loaded question that I’ve gotten mixed responses on: Would you recommend pursuing a Ph.D.?
MC: When I have a student ask if they should pursue a Ph.D., I guess the question that I usually ask is, “What is it that you ultimately want to do with it?” And whatever answer they give, I ask them, “Can you think of people who did what you want to do without a Ph.D.?” And if the answer is yes, and I say I would go talk to them and figure out what it is they did. And if the answer is no, then I would still want them to talk to the people who ended up doing a Ph.D. that they wanted to do or they are considering doing, just to make sure that it’s the right pathway, or that they’re willing to tolerate the uncertainty that’s associated with the traditional path of a Ph.D.
FM: What advice would you give to an aspiring psychologist?
MC: Well, it depends on what stage they are, and what it is that they’re trying to do. But I guess what I would say specifically for someone who is interested in social psychology, is I would tell them to read really broadly. I would tell them not to stop at the boundaries of psychology.
Go read everything there is to read in the sociology literature, in the econ literature, in the history literature, in the humanities, in the journalism school. What are the stories around the thing that you care about really grounding what it is that we think we’re doing? Not the pages of journals in psychology itself, but rather the world that we’re interested in better understanding.
I think people tunnel so quickly into a particular question, or trying to figure out a particular puzzle and it’s good practice to be able to pop your head up and out and look around and say, “Well, this is how these folks over here have been thinking about this problem or this question.”
— Magazine Editor-at-Large Kaitlyn Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kaitlyntsaiii.