September 2004, Issue 3

Studying the Effects of Race on Group Dynamics

Samuel R. Sommers, PhD, is an experimental social psychologist interested in issues of race and how race-related stereotypes influence the way people process information and make decisions in the real world. He is also interested in issues at the intersection of psychology and law, such as factors that influence eyewitness performance and those that influence jurors. Sommers uses mock juries to study how jury deliberations are affected by the racial context of the case and the race of trial participants, including jury members, defendants, and witnesses. "The underlying goal is to demonstrate to people that these issues still influence us, often in ways that we are not aware of," says Sommers.

After receiving his doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan in 2002, Sommers spent a year as a research fellow in the Research Center for Group Dynamics, also at Michigan. While at Michigan, Sommers published several articles on the effects of racial bias on the US jury system. Unlike many researchers who analyze former jurors and real trials, he studies this emotion-laden subject in an experimental and objective manner. A recent review of the literature by Sommers and Phoebe C. Ellsworth, his University of Michigan collaborator, suggests that these different research designs are complementary and that the problem will be most effectively addressed through multiple methods.

Sommers' research involves placing people in experimental situations and recording how they react. He might do a study of mock jurors in which he gives them a fictional trial summary and records their individual or group words, actions, and decisions. He can vary the race of the jurors and the context of the mock trial. His past research suggests some intriguing findings on when and how race affects juries. Sommers and Ellsworth wrote in a review article: "Contrary to common assumption, obviously racially charged trials may not be the ones in which racial bias is most likely. Psychological research and theory suggest that white juror bias may be a more serious concern in run-of-the-mill cases when racial issues are not salient and white jurors are not alerted to the need to guard against prejudice." Sommers has found that simply asking people "How will race influence you?" causes them to be more aware of their own biases and has an effect on their decisions.

"The other interesting finding that we have in the jury context has to do with the composition of the group," Sommers says. "Studies that I've run have found that racially diverse juries spend more time discussing the case, raise more facts from the case during deliberations, make fewer errors in discussing the case, are more willing to correct those errors, and even are more willing to discuss issues of race that can be controversial and polarizing. These findings are important for the legal system but have broader implications. If you find that heterogeneity in groups leads to some differences in performance, that's relevant to the classroom and to other working groups as well."

Sommers joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology at Tufts in September 2003. Sommers' research team at Tufts is testing the hypothesis that participants pay more attention to information when they're part of a diverse group than when they're in a homogeneous group. "We're bringing students into the lab to participate in a study about group dynamics," Sommers explains. "They think they're going to be asked to discuss some contemporary social issue with fellow participants. Some of these groups are homogeneous all-white groups and some are racially diverse. At random, participants are given one of two packets of material to read in order to prepare for the discussion. The packets look the same, so they think they're all reading the same material, but one set is about a controversial but race-neutral topic, such as mandatory community service at the high-school level, and the other set is about affirmative action, a controversial but also race-related issue."

"The participants read the respective passages and are then asked some questions about the upcoming discussion, such as 'To what extent are you looking forward to it? To what extent do you feel you'll be able to speak your mind about the issue?' We also give them a surprise memory test on what they read because we are interested in the possibility that diverse juries remember more facts. We want to see if any difference is confined to reading and thinking about race issues, or if there's a difference with the race-neutral issues also."

Much of Sommers' work is on the constructive processes of social perception and judgment, or the way people construct their own sense of reality. "We don't perceive the world and remember it as a videotape. We don't take in exactly what we see and remember it exactly as it was. You take a jury. You put twelve people in a room and have them witness the exact same trial, and each will interpret it differently and remember things differently. They will make decisions differently. I often look at these social constructs in terms of race, at how people will perceive the same trial differently depending on their race, the race of the parties involved, and the race of their fellow jurors."

Sommers is interested in getting people talking about race and other aspects of diversity, and has already had an impact on discussions of diversity at Tufts. He was instrumental in the organization of a colloquium series entitled "Diversity and Cognition," which began this past spring and will continue throughout the 2004—2005 academic year. The Department of Psychology and the School of Arts, Sciences & Engineering Equal Educational Opportunity Committee are presenting the series. Topics include issues of race, culture, gender, and diversity in general. "The goal is to bring people together from different departments — faculty, staff, students — because diversity is one of the most important issues that we deal with at a university," Sommers says. He hopes these talks will stimulate interest in this field of research within the Tufts community. Because his work on diversity, information processing, and group interactions has relevance for issues of education, Sommers would welcome collaborations with those interested in studying these issues in the classroom.

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