Posted April 28, 2020
Neil Hester is a postdoctoral scholar with Eric Hehman's Seeing Human Laboratory at McGill University in Montreal. Prior to joining the lab in 2019, Neil received his PhD at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, working with Kurt Gray and Keith Payne. He studies how key social categories such as race, gender, and age intersect and interact with contextual factors to predict stereotyping and discrimination, as well as how moral psychology might adopt insights from social cognition and other areas of psychology to improve generalizability.
What advice do you have for individuals pursuing a career in social psychology?
Be prepared to be rejected a lot! I have become much better at accepting rejection and not viewing any individual failure as a reflection of my own abilities. A big part of accepting failure is remembering that short-term results can actually be pretty random (like patterns in small data sets). If you experience some early failures, this is not evidence that you are “not smart enough” for research—believe in yourself, take care of yourself, and keep working. This is especially important for young graduate students, who have no long-term patterns to observe and may not be used to receiving such negative outcomes and feedback.
This topic makes me think of the Philadelphia 76ers, a storied NBA franchise that has lost a LOT of games in the last 8-10 years. In 2014, the organization adopted “trust the process” as their guiding principle, ignoring present outcomes in favor of good practices. The next year, they lost over 90% of their games. But, earlier this year, they almost defeated the Toronto Raptors (who went on to win the championship) in the playoffs. Trust the process.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
In social psychology, we are uniquely privileged to teach on topics such as first impressions, prejudice, attraction, social pressure, and other topics that are highly relatable to students (and people in general). It is really gratifying to watch students “make sense” of some of their own experiences throughout the semester through this lens. Why do I dress this way or act this way at parties? Why do I have the friends that I have? What are the specific reasons that people treat me differently because of my identity? These are all big, interesting questions that social psychology speaks to.
Also, I really enjoy putting together the course syllabus. When you make a syllabus, you get to take all of your favorite topics, anecdotes, and activities and arrange them in the order that makes the most sense for both the students and for yourself. A great syllabus sets expectations for the semester and has a big impact on the success of the class.
What are your current research interests?
I research person perception with a focus on two closely related topics: intersectionality and identity-moderated face perception. Intersectionality—the idea that different identities interlock to yield unique experiences and perceptions (e.g., being/judging a Black woman or a gay man)—is definitely a hot topic in social psychology right now. I am really interested in gaining a better understanding of how and why some groups experience disproportionate discrimination. In some cases, the answer might be counterintuitive: I currently have a paper in press with Keith Payne, Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi and Kurt Gray that uses statistical modeling to show how intersectional patterns of discrimination (e.g., Black men being disproportionately stopped by police) can emerge from simple stereotypes (e.g., main effects of race and gender on perceived threat) without an actual intersectional stereotype. This kind of work will hopefully be useful for developing accurate and parsimonious theories of intersectionality.
I also think that there’s a lot of value in taking a broader view of “what counts” as an identity that meaningfully intersects with other identities. Take height as an example. For a long time, researchers assumed that being tall was implicitly assumed to be race-neutral. Kurt Gray and I published a paper about how being tall increases judgments of competence for White male targets but increases judgments of threat for Black male targets, which helps explain why racial disparities in NYPD police stops were even larger for tall men than for short men.
My work on identity-moderated face perception closely relates to my intersectionality work. For example, some people’s neutral/resting facial expressions look more negative than other people’s (this is colloquially referred to as “resting bitch face”/RBF). Are the consequences of this the same for female and male faces? Not really: female faces high in RBF are primarily seen as less attractive, whereas male faces high in RBF are primarily seen as more threatening. One of my current projects with Eric Hehman’s lab suggests the basic structure of face perception differs based on gender. In general, his lab does a lot of great work highlighting how complex and heterogeneous face perception is across different perceivers and targets—even for findings once thought to be pretty generalizable.
What led to your current research interests?
As an undergraduate, I was interested in various topics that had a moral component to them: religious prejudice, race politics, and gender politics. I had some trouble figuring out what to do to combine all of these interests; I ultimately decided that applying to moral psychology labs was the best option. Now, I am heading in another direction, broadly studying person perception but also working to integrate theory in moral psychology with theory in person perception and stereotyping.
Outside of psychology, how do you like to spend your free time?
I still sing in the university choir as a postdoc and I occasionally play the violin and write music with a close friend who’s a singer-songwriter (we published an EP called Sunfall last year). I also play basketball and follow the NBA pretty closely (if that wasn’t clear from the 76ers anecdote earlier). Oh, and I play video games with friends from undergraduate and graduate school. It’s a great way to wind down and keep in touch!