Posted March 31, 2020
Marilynn Brewer is professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio State University and currently resides in Santa Barbara, CA. She was previously associated with the University of New South Wales, and was also Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute for Social Science Research at UCLA. Brewer has served as President of the American Psychological Society, the Midwestern Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. She has served as Editor of Personality and Social Psychological Review and Associate Editor of the Psychological Review. Brewer is known for her contributions to the areas of social identity, social cognition, and intergroup relations, and is particularly recognized for her theory of optimal distinctiveness.
Can you recall a moment, experience or person that influenced you or led you to decide that personality and social psychology was the path for you?
I wish I could say that I always knew that I wanted to be a social psychologist, but the truth is I stumbled into the field more or less accidentally. As an undergraduate, I went to a very small college—too small to have a department of psychology, only a department of social sciences where I had a female professor who convinced me that I should go to graduate school and pursue a PhD. But when I had to choose what field to apply to, “social psychology” sounded like the closest thing to what I had been studying, so that’s where I directed my applications. Very fortuitous because from Day 1 of my graduate training I realized that studying the interface between the individual and the social world was the niche that suited me perfectly.
What led to your interest in the social psychology of intergroup relations?
In my fourth year of graduate school, my mentor (Donald Campbell) invited me to become a research associate on a large ethnographic project called the Cross-Cultural Study of Ethnocentrism. My dissertation was based on research from that project collected in East Africa, assessing inter-tribal attitudes and stereotypes. That set me on my career-long quest to understand the cognitive and motivational bases of social identity, ingroup favoritism, and intergroup prejudice.
In what ways have you involved students in your research?
Throughout my academic career, my lab group always included undergraduate students who worked with graduate students to plan, conduct, and interpret research projects and results. I felt it was important that motivated students get involved in the full range of research design, from shaping the research question to operationalization to implementation and analysis. In many cases what they wind up learning is that the research process is not always linear, that results can be unexpected or disappointing, and that every study leads to a new question.
In what ways do you feel your background in social psychology makes the biggest impact in your (current) career?
Throughout my academic career I was engaged in basic research and theory on questions of intergroup relations, self identity, and social cognition. I have now retired from academia and have become an applied social psychologist, working with political advocacy groups to promote progressive policies. I believe that everything I learned from personality and social psychology can be brought to bear to pursue a more fair, inclusive, and sustainable society.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I’m already doing it…