Statement of Research Interests
“Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat”
– Audre Lorde
* indicates graduate students or postdoctoral fellows
The United States of America is a nation of profound contradictions. It has some of the best academic and health institutions in the world, is a leader in the development of cutting-edge technologies to sustain our collective futures, and since its founding, has declared equality and justice to be core values of its society. Yet, despite its abundant resources and declarations about its values of equality and justice, Americans live immensely unequal lives. At the same time that newspapers publish stories about the flourishing lives of the American elite, government agencies publish endless depressing statistics about how Black and Brown Americans, and Americans from lower socioeconomic-status backgrounds struggle to attain basic necessities. They struggle to attain the quality education required for gainful employment, to gain access to life-saving health technologies, to live in safe and sustainable environments, and to get fair and just treatment in American legal systems.
My program of research has pursued two overarching goals. First, it has explored some of the dynamic processes that underlie these American contradictions. By that I mean it has generated theoretical insights that help both scientists and broader publics understand why it is that American society—and other societies that are structured in similar ways—operates in the unequal ways that it does. Second, for those who find it difficult to live in harmony with these contradictions—who find them too unbearable—my work has generated and tested practical strategies that individuals and collectives can pursue if they wish to bring narratives of equality and justice into alignment with reality.
To generate these actionable insights, I have taken an interdisciplinary and multi-method approach throughout my work that has integrated and strengthened theories and methods from across the social sciences. I have conducted a series of laboratory and field experiments, community-based studies, longitudinal studies, focus-group studies, systematic reviews and meta-analysis, and psycho-physiological studies (e.g., eye-tracking) to get a holistic understanding of the processes underlying these issues and their implications for social interventions and policies.
In the sections that follow, I will briefly describe the program of research that led to those insights.
I. Cultivating Unequal Minds: Meaning Making and Motivation in Unequal Societies
The first line of my research has focused on unpacking the social mechanisms involved in the development and maintenance of inequality in multiple domains of American life. Americans and American institutions spend a great deal of time talking about inequality and the importance of addressing it (Lewis, 2022, Nature Human Behaviour). Yet, despite all of the talk, they are rarely motivated to engage in the meaningful actions that are necessary for addressing the inequities they ostensibly find so troubling (Onyeador, Hudson, & Lewis, 2021, Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences).
I have been curious about why that is. How do Americans manage to live with these contradictions—of espousing egalitarian values yet maintaining unequal social systems? And what motivates them to either stay the course or try to change it?
For decades, scholars have focused on the role of the media in cultivating the ways in which Americans perceive and make meaning of these (and other) issues. My research builds on this rich history by adding further dimensions that are important to consider if we want to truly understand how the United States (and other nations) manages to cultivate the kinds of unequal minds that end up maintaining our unequal society (Lewis, 2023, Annual Review of Law and Social Science). I conduct this research by integrating findings from across the social sciences to develop a more holistic approach to studying these issues, which simultaneously examines the multiple levels of social life that come together to shape how Americans make meaning of the inequality that is baked into the fabric their society (Lewis, 2021a, Psychological Inquiry).
This approach has been generative in numerous ways. It has led to the advancement of theories by explicating the multiple ways in which inequality affects people’s experiences, which must be accounted for to have more accurate and predictive models of human behavior (Cikara, Martinez, & Lewis, 2022, Nature Reviews Psychology). And it has led to the development of frameworks and broader strategies for making the social sciences more useful for addressing a wide range of inequities that continue to plague society (Lewis, 2022, Trends in Cognitive Sciences). I will highlight a few examples to illustrate what I mean.
In the education realm, we have conducted a series of ecological studies that have improved collective understanding of the mechanisms through which structural biases in law and public policy seep into the mind and affect student experiences in schools (Lewis & Yates, 2019, Perspectives on Psychological Science) which, over time, go on to reinforce structural biases that affect subsequent generations (Oyserman & Lewis, 2017, Social Issues and Policy Review). In the legal realm, we have studied how the structure of, and procedures used in, the court system contribute to the persistence of inequality and injustice in that system (*Spruill & Lewis, 2022, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; *Spruill & Lewis, 2023, Perspectives on Psychological Science). In the environmental realm, we have studied how social segregation has led to Americans from different demographic backgrounds having different ways of thinking about environmental issues (*Song, Lewis, et al., 2020, Journal of Environmental Psychology), patterns of thinking that matter for their willingness to engage in collective action to address those issues (Lewis et al., 2021, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences). And in the health realm, we have studied how all of these processes combine in ways that matter for whether the health interventions we develop end up being effective for addressing health issues (Lewis et al., 2021, Health Communication).
Studying these processes in these multi-level ways has allowed us to gain greater theoretical insights about how multiple factors in society communicate messages to people that affect the mind and about how the mind affects behaviors that have implications for society (Lewis 2021b, Psychological Inquiry).
II. The (Meta) Science of Social Change
The second line of my research builds on the first by examining how the processes that social and behavioral scientists use to generate knowledge influence our understanding of social phenomenon—particularly inequality-related phenomenon, and the implications of our knowledge-generation processes for both theory and social change efforts (Lewis, 2020, Communication Methods and Measures). The social sciences have a long history of attempting to “give science away,” but one of the things we have learned in this line of research is that the ways in which our research is often conducted (IJzerman, Lewis, et al., 2020, Nature Human Behaviour) and reported in our journal articles (*Premachandra & Lewis, 2022, Perspectives on Psychological Science) make it very difficult to actually put our research into practice to improve social conditions.
It is not always, or even often, clear how much of the variance in our results are due to features of the stimuli we selected and how we sequenced our study procedures (*Ruisch, Lewis, & Ferguson, accepted in principle, Nature Human Behaviour). It is also not always clear whether and how features of the time period during which the study was conducted matter for the results found (Lewis & *Michalak, accepted in principle, Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology). Finally, we do not always know whether characteristics of the researchers or other agents of change (e.g., doctors, teachers, government officials) delivering the messages—and the ways they communicate—matter for how participants make sense of messages, thereby influencing whether participants are motivated to act on them (Earl & Lewis, 2019, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). Studying these dynamics in concert is important for improving our theories about factors that guide human behavior (Lewis, 2022, Trends in Cognitive Sciences) and for leveraging those theories to develop and share effective interventions to improve social outcomes (Lewis & Wai, 2021, Perspectives on Psychological Science).
We have been studying these meta-scientific dynamics and their implications by collaborating with researchers to conduct large-scale, multi-site studies that enable us to examine how different constellations of person-level and situation-level variables influence outcomes (e.g., Forscher, Taylor, Cavagnaro, Lewis, et al., accepted in principle, Nature Human Behaviour). We have also been collaborating with community organizations to conduct studies that give us deeper understandings of social issues and how to address them (Lewis et al., 2020, MethodsX).
Studying these meta-scientific processes has had several benefits. It has forced us—and the social and behavioral sciences more broadly—to think more critically about factors that influence people and what those factors mean for the design and implementation of socially relevant research (Lewis & Niederdeppe, 2023, International Encyclopedia of Health Communication). We spend a great deal of time thinking about how the ways we sequence intervention procedures influence participants’ metacognitive experiences, experiences that can differ substantially across groups and sub-groups (IJzerman, Lewis, et al., 2020, Nature Human Behaviour). This leads us toward more critical reflections about how generalizable our current knowledge is and what we could learn by making more concerted efforts to increase representation in our samples and settings. All of this forces us to think holistically about what our models and theories ultimately mean for both science and society (Humphreys, Lewis, Sender, & Won, 2021, Journal of Communication; Lewis, 2021, American Psychologist).
If you are interested in learning more about any of the research described above, feel free to email me (email@example.com).