Genius-Grant Winner Betsy Levy Paluck Provides a Message of Hope

Genius-grant winner Betsy Levy Paluck looks at reducing conflict and destructive behavior by changing social norms.

For Princeton University social psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck, winning a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship means the freedom to identity a subject and say, "Let's go study that."
For Princeton University social psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck, winning a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship means the freedom to identity a subject and say, "Let's go study that."
Photo by Frank Veronsky

The #MeToo movement seems made for Betsy Levy Paluck, the Princeton University social psychologist whose work on the impact of changing social norms recently won her a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

“I think that we needed a strong treatment, to put it in the words of scientists,” says Paluck, whose research has taken her to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Nigeria—and New Jersey middle schools and junior high schools, where she studied how to reduce student conflict.

“The swiftness with which so many women weighed in was necessary,” Paluck says. That swiftness provided momentum for the movement against sexual assault and harassment. “This is exactly how norms change,” she adds.

The 40-year-old Paluck, a single mother of a 2-year-old son, is lithe and green-eyed, with a pixie haircut and an intense, polite manner. She lives in Princeton and works in a sleek, modern building on the university campus, in an office filled with movie and radio posters, books on genocide and gender, and a cherished 2017 university award for mentorship. Lunch, on the run, is a cafeteria-made kale stew. These days, thanks to publicity from the no-strings-attached, $625,000 MacArthur “genius” grant, she is more overscheduled than ever.

In September, the MacArthur Foundation cited Paluck, associate professor of psychology and public affairs and deputy director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton, for “unraveling how social networks and norms influence our interactions with one another and identifying interventions that can change destructive behavior.”

News of the award reached Paluck, as it does most MacArthur recipients, via an unexpected phone call. There is no application for the fellowship; the Chicago-based foundation solicits nominations from a constantly changing pool of people in diverse fields and often keeps files on potential fellows for years. “It was so out of the blue,” Paluck says. When a member of the selection committee read her the citation, she recalls being filled with “this overwhelming sense of gratitude. It had taken me so long to do all of that, and I was thinking in that moment about all of the people who had done it with me.”

Paluck’s essential insight is that changing people’s perceptions of social norms—their views of what is normal and desirable in their community or peer group—can alter behavior, even in the absence of a change in more stubbornly persistent individual attitudes. Her work puts a positive spin on conformity, which too often has fostered collective violence and other catastrophes. It suggests that this same impulse also can spur peace, tolerance, cooperation and other social goods. “It is a message of some hope,” she says.

In Rwanda, for example, a radio station’s hate-filled propaganda helped fuel the 1994 genocide of one ethnic group, the Tutsis, by another, the Hutus. But in her dissertation research, Paluck found that a post-genocide Rwandan radio soap opera aimed at “discouraging blind obedience…and promoting independent thought and collective action” actually had those desired effects.

Other work Paluck has done (along with Margaret E. Tankard) has shown that the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming gay marriage positively changed perceptions about the social acceptability of same-sex unions. And in an ambitious study close to home, she proved that the active involvement of socially influential classmates in New Jersey schools could reduce incidents of bullying and other forms of student conflict.

Equally innovative is the way Paluck conducts her work. Instead of staying in a laboratory, where variables can be controlled, she often embarks on large-scale, logistically challenging field experiments that test the intersection of psychological theory and real-world experiences.

“Betsy has several outstanding strands of work,” says Donald P. Green, Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and her dissertation adviser at Yale University. “Her path-breaking work on social networks in schools…represents one of the first attempts to combine field experimentation with network analysis.”

Paluck credits her parents with inspiring her passion for social change. Born in New London, Connecticut, she was raised in Norwich by a librarian mother and a father who was a special-education teacher and, later, administrator.

She describes them as “quiet activists” who “set this very effective model for me by simply walking the talk all the time.”

Paluck majored in psychology at Yale, intent on a clinical career. But she was enticed by the challenges of social-psychology research. As an undergraduate, she assisted in a study on smiling, gender and social context, and in another on women’s willingness to report sexual harassment in job interviews. The former study found that low-status men smiled more and women in authority smiled less; the latter that women tended to neither protest nor report inappropriate sexual comments.

As a graduate student at Yale, she gravitated to the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. That’s where Green was working on issues such as prejudice and hate crime. He would become her mentor.

Paluck cites as another of her influences the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory of “the spiral of silence”—in part, an attempt to explain why prospective dissenters in Nazi Germany kept quiet. This is how Paluck explains the theory: “They were watching each other to see everybody else’s reaction. If someone does not speak about their opposition to Hitler, you presume from that silence that they are supporting [him], or at least that they’re not virulently against. And so this spirals, because that informs you about whether maybe you should keep quiet. And just by dint of everyone keeping quiet, it’s taken as assent.”

Paluck applied Noelle-Neumann’s theory to the design of her New Jersey schools study. She sought to identify the most important peers in the school community and have them speak out in order “to short-circuit the spiral of silence.” The aim, she says, was to diminish “all of the ways in which students make one another miserable.”

One year prior to the 2012-13 study, New Jersey had imposed the nation’s toughest anti-bullying law on its public schools, requiring programs to target student character and empathy. When Paluck sought school participation, “the response was overwhelming.” In the end, 56 schools and more than 24,000 students, ages 11 to 15, were involved, split evenly between control and “treatment” groups.

Paluck and her colleagues mapped social networks by asking students to list all the schoolmates they had spent time with, in person or online, in the preceding few weeks. She also surveyed social norms about conflict. The researchers then enlisted a group of “seed” students—both the most socially influential and random others—to identify common conflict behaviors, such as name-calling, class disruption and physical fights. The students were encouraged to become “the public face of opposition” to those behaviors through the use of posters, the distribution of wristbands and other interventions.

The results were promising: Disciplinary reports declined by more than 30 percent in “treatment” schools. While surveys showed no average change in norms as a result of the interventions, those students closest to the social influencers did alter their views. “It would have been great to also say the normative climate changed,” Paluck says. “It was a more complicated story. It always is.”

Since the New Jersey study, Paluck has been deluged with questions from “dozens of schools and teachers” about the findings. “We did train teachers at the schools sampled to carry this on,” she says, and she refers others to the online program curriculum, downloaded hundreds of times since. “For me, it’s really a theoretical project—I can’t make it my life’s work. I say, ‘Keep in touch and tell me how it goes.’” There’s no feedback just yet, she says.

In addition to teaching (her spring course is Psychology of Gender), Paluck presides over a weekly laboratory—a seminar in which undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows share their research ideas, study designs and results. One of her three postdoctoral fellows is working on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, investigating why, despite data to the contrary, people are inclined to attribute the problem to a few bad apples rather than a broader culture of rape.

Paluck hopes to use her platform as a MacArthur fellow to create a “practitioner-in-residence program,” bringing to Princeton “someone who’s trying to apply ideas about human nature, behavioral science—especially to a cause in which they’re reducing inequality or improving human well-being.”

The MacArthur money will also free Paluck and her collaborators, at least temporarily, from the tyranny of constant grant applications. “This gives us the gift of alacrity and spontaneity and helps us to be more creative,” Paluck says. “It helps us to identify something that’s happening in the world, and say, ‘Let’s go study that.’”

Julia M. Klein’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, the Nation, Psychology Today and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.

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