Research Program

Overview & Funding

Our laboratory investigates the mental processes that allow humans to live collectively, with particular interest how they facilitate or inhibit social change. We conduct experiments to better understand the social cognitive and neural processes that underlie conformity and dissent, intergroup biases, and moral decision-making.  It is our hope that by illuminating these processes, it may be possible to reduce some of groups’ most harmful proclivities: mindless compliance, discrimination, and moralistic aggression.

Our research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and a Collaborative Opportunity Research Grant from Lehigh University.  In the past, we have had funding from Defence Research and Development Canada, and several Paul J. Franz Pre-Tenure Faculty Fellowships from Lehigh University.

For the especially interested, what follows is a detailed description of our research program.

The Psychology of Dissent

Much of my research focuses on the very beginnings of social change.  I am interested how individual people decide to speak up and challenge the status quo within their groups.  Before social movements develop, small minorities – sometimes of one – start by raising issues and criticizing their groups.  Although dissent is vital for healthy civic and collective functioning, the psychological processes that underlie dissent decisions have not, until recently, been well understood.  I investigate when and why group members decide to dissent.  Specifically, I employ a framework - the normative conflict model (NCM; Packer, 2008, 2011; Packer & Miners, in press) that draws on theories in social psychology and economics to explore the cognitive and motivational factors that cause members to challenge their groups. Although often glorified in the abstract and sometimes admired after the fact, dissent is typically met in the moment with suspicion, denigration, even material or physical punishment.  These reactions are predictable from standard theories of group functioning, which posit that conformity to group norms is motivated by the desire to exemplify a group identity and to maintain collective efficacy and cohesion.  But they raise a puzzle: given the costs often associated with dissent, why does anyone do it?

The normative conflict model proposes that a key to understanding dissent decisions lies in collective identification - the extent to which individuals feel invested in, place value on and self-categorize as members of a group. By adopting a social category as an important component of their identity and experiencing a sense of concomitant commitment, strongly identified group members are more likely than other people to take collective interests into account during decision-making and, therefore, to act in ways that are beneficial to the group. On this basis, I hypothesize that although strongly identified members are generally motivated to perceive and present their group in the most positive possible light, they may be willing to challenge social norms and to criticize their group if they believe it to be in the collective interest.  My empirical work shows that this is case.  Packer and Chasteen (2010; Packer 2009; Packer & Miners, 2012) found, for example, that strongly identified group members are willing to express concern regarding group norms when they perceive those norms to be harmful to the group.  Other tests of the normative conflict model conducted by outside laboratories have found that identified members are willing to dissent when their group’s behavior fail to live up to their collective ideals (e.g., Crane & Platow, 2010; Tauber & Sassenberg, 2012).  In ongoing research, my lab continues to extend the NCM, examining how competing goals for stability vs. change influence dissent decisions (Packer & Miners, in press; Packer, in press; Packer, Fujita & Herman, in press; Packer, Fujita & Chasteen, in press).

Intergroup Bias

A second line of research in the lab investigates intergroup biases: the pervasive tendency people have to preferentially attend to, evaluate and reward their own groups at the expense of outgroups.  Although the past 50 years have seen a substantial decline in overtly prejudicial attitudes in the United States, massive disparities (e.g., in education, health, employment and justice) persist between groups.  Understanding how and why disparities are maintained despite positive shifts in intergroup attitudes is a critical task for social scientists.  My lab is currently developing and testing a novel cooperative contingencies model for predicting and reducing intergroup bias among otherwise low prejudiced people.

The logic of the model is as follows:  Life in human societies hinges on cooperation – the ability for people to coordinate their actions in mutually beneficial ways.  But cooperation is risky, often rendering people vulnerable to exploitation. To mitigate risks and foster trust, humans have developed mechanisms to enhance cooperative opportunities.  Shared groups function as one such mechanism.  Specifically, humans show a marked propensity to cooperate with fellow ingroup members, extending the reciprocity and generosity that allow for collective enterprise.  As such, because people can generally expect greater cooperation from fellow group members, selectively affiliating and coordinating with ingroup rather than outgroup members is often a pragmatic decision, even for otherwise unprejudiced people.

Importantly, however, we hypothesize that incentives to preferentially affiliate with ingroup members are likely to be contingent on the full set of cooperative affordances available in a particular context.  If shared group memberships afford the best available means of facilitating cooperation between individuals, people are likely to differentially rely on ingroup members.  In contrast, when groups are not likely to enhance cooperation or when other effective mechanisms for fostering and sustaining cooperation are present, people may be less likely to exhibit intergroup biases.  There are a variety of mechanisms apart from group bonds that incentivize cooperation, including third party punishment or reward and, at a societal level, policing and legal sanctions. We have been testing the provocative hypothesis that people exhibit reduced preferences to affiliate and coordinate with ingroup (vs. outgroup) members when these sorts of alternate social structures effectively support cooperation between individuals.  My lab has conducted a series of initial studies that collectively provide compelling evidence for these predictions.  We find, for example, that societies in which people can trust cooperation-enhancing social institutions (e.g., the police and legal system) exhibit less bias toward immigrants than more corrupt societies.  Further, experimentally creating cooperation-enhancing social structures in the lab reduces intergroup bias among low prejudiced individuals (Packer & Kugler, in prep).

Other projects conducted in collaboration with Dr. Alison Chasteen (University of Toronto) focus on how shifts in identity - as people anticipate leaving and joining groups - affect attitudes and stereotyping, as well as self-evaluations (e.g., Packer & Chasteen, 2006; Remedios, Chasteen & Packer, 2010; Packer, Chasteen & Kang, 2011). Research conducted in collaboration with Drs. Jay Van Bavel (New York University) and William Cunningham (University of Toronto) employs methods from cognitive neuroscience to investigate brain processes underlying the rapid formation of ingroup preferences when people join new groups. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain, these studies suggest that the most minimal of associations with a novel group leads to heightened activity in evaluative brain regions, including the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, when viewing ingroup (vs. outgroup) faces (Van Bavel, Packer & Cunningham, 2008; Van Bavel, Packer & Cunningham, 2011). We have also found that a novel group membership modulates activity in an area of fusiform gyrus critical to face processing (commonly known as the ‘fusiform face area’), such that this region responds preferentially to ingroup (vs. outgroup) faces.  These studies shed light on the neural mechanisms that underlie group-based biases and, ultimately, discrimination (Packer & Van Bavel, in press).

Moral Evaluation and Decision-Making

Several recent projects in our lab are also investigating the processes by which people make moral evaluations, and the influence of those evaluations on decisions and behavior.  For decades, theorists asserted that moral decisions were determined by conscious reasoning. More recently, however, psychologists have argued that many decisions stem from moral intuitions that are automatically triggered and enacted prior to reasoning. A line of research conducted in collaboration with Drs. Michael Gill (Lehigh University) and Jay Van Bavel (New York University) examines a potential reconciliation of these two perspectives.  We propose that: (1) conscious moral beliefs can affect decision-making and action; (2) these beliefs are not necessarily automatically activated, but are influential when people operate in a moral mindset; and (3) these beliefs influence automatic attentional and construal processes, which can increase their influence on behavior (Gill, Packer & Van Bavel, 2012; see also Van Bavel, Packer & Ray, under review). Our research thus takes a person-by-situation approach to moral psychology, and proposes that moral mindsets—which can be adopted intentionally, but can also be triggered by environmental cues including prosocial behavior by other people — increase the strength with which moral beliefs predict decisions (Gill et al., 2012; Packer, Gill, Chu & Van Bavel, in prep.). In alternative (e.g., pragmatic) mindsets, moral beliefs may go unexpressed (see also Van Bavel, Packer, Hass & Cunningham, 2012). This model can account for instances when people fail to act on their values because they do not consider the moral implications of their actions, and suggests that ‘moral mindlessness’ may be overcome when moral mindsets give purpose to consciously endorsed beliefs.

A second project conducted in collaboration with my senior Ph.D. student, Justin Aoki, is examining how morally relevant decisions are influenced by non-moral (e.g., economic) considerations.  Currently dominant models in moral cognition posit that morality represents a distinct evaluative dimension, such that moral concerns are experienced as incommensurate with non-moral value (e.g., moral principles cannot be converted into financial value).  Research on ‘taboo trade-offs’ appears to support this.  People often report that they are unwilling to commit or allow certain moral transgressions (e.g., to kill another person or rig an election) for any amount of money.  However, whereas almost all extant research has examined these sorts of trade-offs in terms of people’s willingness to forgo benefits, almost no research has examined willingness to engage in actions to avoid costs.  Well-documented asymmetries between costs and benefits in many other psychological domains (i.e., losses are almost always more psychologically powerful than gains) suggests that moral/non-moral trade-offs may be experienced as less taboo when it comes to avoiding losses.  In a series of studies, we have found that people are indeed significantly more willing to commit moral transgressions to avoid financial losses than to garner gains (Aoki & Packer, in prep).  Importantly, this pattern is predictable from established models of economic decision-making (e.g., prospect theory), suggesting that morality does not necessarily represent an entirely distinct evaluative dimension, completely incommensurate with non-moral value.  Moving forward, we are attempting to situate moral vs. non-moral forms of valuation with a broader model of decision-making. 

- July, 2013