Betsy Levy Paluck Named 2017 MacArthur Fellow

Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University, was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow on Wednesday morning. The fellowship, often referred to as the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, is awarded annually to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” (Full disclosure: Paluck is a columnist for the Behavioral Scientist).

She is one of 24 fellows, a list that includes scientists, scholars, artists, and activists. Each fellow will receive an unrestricted stipend of $625,000 over the next five years. Notable past recipients from the behavioral sciences include Angela Duckworth, Colin Camerer, Jennifer Eberhardt, Sendhil Mullainathan, Jennifer Richeson, and Amos Tversky.

In her research, Paluck explores people’s perceptions of social norms—the beliefs and behaviors that are typical and desirable in their society—and how those perceptions relate to personal beliefs and behavior.

“All of us have had the experience of wanting to do something or wanting to speak up but think that it won’t be received well by people,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. “This is the heart of the idea that we’re after in my research.”

In one study, Paluck and her team wanted to understand how mass media can shape people’s ideas of what’s acceptable and what’s not in society. That work took her to Rwanda where, following a genocide that was partly fueled by radio propaganda, the government was now using the medium to promote reconciliation. Paluck arranged for a random subset of Rwandans to hear a soap opera that featured themes of tolerance and reconciliation and found striking differences between their perceptions of what was socially acceptable compared to other Rwandans who lived in regions that played different radio programs.

“What I learned from the radio soap opera was how your ideas about what others believe can change even when your own beliefs don’t,” she explained to the MacArthur Foundation. “[The listeners] had a new idea of what other Rwandans were doing, and their behavior was consistent with that even when their own beliefs necessarily weren’t changing as rapidly.”

She and her colleague Margaret Tankard found something similar in the United States after the 2015 Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage. People’s perception of the public acceptance of gay marriage increased after the decision, though their personal attitudes tended not to change.

This is one of the key insights of Paluck’s work—to reduce discrimination or violence it may be more fruitful to try to change people’s perceptions of what is normal rather than what they personally believe. It’s a logic she’s also applied to help reduce bullying in schools.

On what she she plans to do with the money from the award, Paluck told NPR she had two goals. “One goal is to find creative ways to promote collaboration between activists, NGOs and social scientists,” she said. “Perhaps NGOs could have social-scientist-in-residence programs, the same way that many universities have artist in residence programs.”

The other goal? “I also want to promote and train the next generation of scholars to do this kind of work.”