The new assistant professor brings expertise on mental health disparities in at-risk populations
Lillian Polanco-Roman joins the Psychology department faculty at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in Fall 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. With a background as a clinical psychologist, Polanco-Roman studies how cultural experiences can impact psychopathology, especially in racial minorities and immigrant youth populations. Specifically, her research tackles demographic disparities in suicidal ideation and behaviors in youth.
Research Matters sat down (digitally) with Polanco-Roman to discuss her research, what drew her to the work, and what she’s looking forward to doing at NSSR.
Elevating ‘Social Research’
“I’m interested in the ‘social research’ part of The New School,” Polanco-Roman says. “Part of its mission includes looking at social justice, social and environmental factors, and how that might impact development. These ideas play a huge role in my research. This focus is something that really aligns with me, with research, with my passion.”
Polanco-Roman studies the ‘casualties of racism’ and how racial and ethnic discrimination influences suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority emerging adults. Culturally related experiences are rarely analyzed in risk assessment for suicide, and she hopes to better understand and highlight the relationships between ethnic identity and depressive symptoms.
Her path to an academic career grew out of her roots right here in New York City. A first-generation college student born and raised in Brooklyn, Polanco-Roman received a BS in Psychology from Fordham University, an MA in Psychology from Hunter College — where she also taught the subject — and her PhD from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and has counseled in a clinical setting.
Her upbringing played a strong role in shaping her scholarly interests. “Studying and working here made a lot of sense given the population I’m interested in working with, which is ethnic minority youth and immigrant youth,” she says. “They are well represented in New York City and it’s what drew me to this work. I want to give back to my community.”
During her time at CUNY, Polanco-Roman pieced together her own program of study, first finding faculty studying suicide risk in adolescence. She then connected with a professor who specialized in the impact of racial discrimination on psychopathology. “Working with both of them, I was able to create essentially a tailored programmed where I was looking at cultural experiences of suicide risk and youth by combining these two.”
While forging her own specialized path of study, Polanco-Roman began to translate her research into real-life suicide prevention and minority youth support. While working in the Counseling Services Center at John Jay College, she co-facilitated a group for college students with chronic depression and suicidal ideation that focused on healthy coping strategies. As a training therapist at City College, she also conducted long-term individual psychotherapy in English and Spanish for children and adults at a community-based mental health clinic.
Polanco-Roman is a member of the Youth Suicide Research Consortium, an interdisciplinary network of researchers that aims to improve research on youth suicidal behavior, suicide prevention, and treatment, and to increase research on suicide among underrepresented populations of youth. Her work — which has been published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and other leading psychology journals — has helped illuminate the need for psychologists to account for experiences of ethnic discrimination as a potential source of psychological distress in diagnosing and treating suicidal behavior.
Looking Ahead to Fall 2020
Finding and creating community within larger urban settings is a key part of Polanco-Roman’s life, and it’s also what’s attracted her to The New School and NSSR. City campuses are like a “microcosm of the larger New York City,” she says. “It’s kind of like this dual identity component. I like the small feel within this larger environment. I find it to be more intimate and there’s a lot more learning that can go on there, and stronger connections that can be made.”
These connections can be critical for graduate students. As Polanco-Roman explains, the city setting provides ample opportunities for Psychology MA and PhD students to develop their concentrations. “Whatever one can imagine that they want to study or learn or train in, they can find it here.”
Polanco-Roman looks forward to building on her research with these resources, and collaborating with other NSSR faculty.
She finds herself drawn to the work of Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, who runs the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab. “I’m interested in learning more about the relationship between how traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood experiences, might impact risk for suicide later into adolescence, maybe even young adulthood,” Polanco-Roman says.
Polanco-Roman is scheduled to teach courses like Research Methods in the fall, which provides hands-on experience in designing, running, and reporting psychology experiments.
Although academia at large has and continues to make major adjustments to learning due to COVID-19, Polanco-Roman is ready to adapt and be flexible in her first semester at NSSR, using the global pandemic affecting cities and communities as a teaching moment.
“Regardless of using distance learning or being in the classroom, I’m excited to start and I’m excited to work with my new NSSR family, faculty, and students, and make new connections,” she says.
Graduate school is a specialized environment where students can immerse themselves in a discipline. In Fall 2019, New School for Social Research Anthropology and Psychology students gained a new way to explore specialized areas of study within their chosen fields: subject areas. By pursuing course credits within these informal paths, students can deepen their research, develop closer relationships with faculty, connect with potential job and internship opportunities, and more.
Research Matters spoke to students in the Anthropology and Design, Global Mental Health, and Science and Society subject areas about their experiences. Read on to learn more!
Note that a new subject area is debuting in Fall 2020: Applied Psychology, which helps prepare Psychology MA students to be part of the growing field of user experience researchers
Anthropology and Design
Why do things look the way they do? In the Anthropology and Design subject area, Anthropology MA students have the opportunity to apply ethnographic research and conceptual frameworks in their field to how the world and its structures are designed. With access to the classes and resources of The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement, as well as NSSR’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism programs, Anthropology students can develop design practice and apply those skills to their research.
Erin Simmons, an MA student in the Anthropology and Design subject area, examines the evolving field of data representation.
“I am looking at the way that data visualization is being used within the international development sector,” Simmons says. “I work with things like complex poverty indicators, the human development index to look at how people’s perceptions of what poverty is and how it’s defined can be altered by the visualizations that are being used to represent it.”
Simmons was drawn to the subject area after working with economic texts and data collection. Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology and head of the Anthropology and Design subject area, encouraged Simmons to think deeper on how design tactics influence the way data is perceived.
“Anthropology offers critical concepts and methods that are extremely valuable for the politically- and ethically-informed practice and analysis of design,” says Mattern. “Design, likewise, empowers anthropologists to think more expansively about the subjects, methods, and modes of their practice.” At The New School, continues Mattern, anthropology and design are “both honored as creative and intellectual practices that have much to learn from each other.”
By taking classes in data visualization and design, Simmons is elevating her work on poverty, and trying to present it in a way that is more accessible and effective. She hopes to collaborate further with designers and create new forms of data representation.
Global Mental Health
Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Yet gaps in culturally relevant studies and resources persist globally and hinder the advancement of solutions to this problem.
Psychology MA students can pursue the Global Mental Health subject area to understand how treatment and prevention can be better implemented on an international scale.
Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in global mental health, says the subject area exposes students to how “mental health researchers are reimagining the ways we can design and deliver mental healthcare, reduce stigma, and partner with communities to empower and support one another.”
Although the material draws largely from psychology, Global Mental Health courses are very interdisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, public health, and design. This experiential coursework, combined with internship placements, prepares students to work for international agencies, government, and non-profits engaged in community-based mental health work.
This year, Evan Neuwirth decided to dive into Global Mental Health. In addition to finishing his MA in Psychology and starting his PhD, Neuwirth is an Executive Function Coach runs a small tutoring business that specializes in executive function remediation. A student fellow at NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, he also works with the International Rescue Committee program and directed a documentary film that chronicled the lives of the Liberian national amputee soccer team.
From these diverse experiences, Neuwirth found a common thread: that the mental health of people affected by crisis is poorly understood. Turning to psychology, he realized part of the problem was in the lack of diverse and relevant research; many mental health studies are done in a Western context and without quality socio-economic considerations, which mean they are inadequate for addressing global disparities in mental health support.
After taking classes with Brown, Neuwirth was able to connect his own research ambitions to other work at The New School. Joining in Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, Neuwirth is working with other students to investigate and reduce barriers to mental health care in low-resourced contexts. Current lab research includes refugee mental health and psychosocial support, hospital-based mental health detection and prevention, and human rights and global mental health.
“Global mental health is still an emerging field,” Neuwrith said. “It is exciting to be involved now and to see the systematic and global impact this research could have.”
At the IRC, Neuwirth works on their newly implemented Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Framework, helping to foster programming to achieve mental health and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for their populations.
“The New School is one of the few places offering these kinds of global mental health studies now,” Neuwrith said. “This work is going to be the future of how we understand mental health.”
Science and Society
Writing a thesis is a solitary, often lonely process. For Anthropology MA student Sonia Zhang, her thesis is a deep dive into loneliness itself.
“I’m interested in how different understandings and experiences of loneliness come together in contemporary life, and one of the fields I identified is social robotics in Japan,” Zhang says. “By looking at how people in the field reconcile ideas of loneliness both in their professional life and through the products — in this case, robots — they design, I am trying to understand what loneliness does in the contemporary, technology-infused landscape.”
Zhang’s research has always been interdisciplinary, drawing from literature in anthropology, public health, medicine, and engineering. In Fall 2019, she took Science and Society, a class taught by Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and began to study canonical readings and current debates in Science and Technology Studies (STS).
“Without some training in [STS], I wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue a project about scientific knowledge and technological institutions at all,” Zhang says. The breadth of material in the Science and Society course also helped her move forward toward this goal. “The course’s emphasis on morality made me consider some angles of the loneliness debate that I have neglected before,” she adds, connecting questions of moral behavior and classification to current pressing political and social problems.
The course is foundational to the Science and Society subject area, which aims to help Anthropology MA students ethnographically and historically investigate how scientific research is informed by and informs social processes. Langlitz, who turned to Anthropology after completing training as a physician, focuses his research on behavioral sciences and larger philosophical questions.
“The sciences construct the societies we live in and our societies construct the scientific knowledge that informs some of the most consequential political decisions we take,” says Langlitz. “This complicated relationship raises long-standing philosophical questions. But recent attempts on both the left and the right to democratize and politicize scientific expertise are making this relationship one of the most pressing issues of our day.” The Science and Society subject area helps “provide students with the conceptual and methodological toolkit they need to understand the knowledge societies we live in.”
Outside of class, he helped Zhang by recommending independent STS readings and convening Anthropology student meetings and workshops on collaborative research in science-related topics.
Although Zhang didn’t initially set out to pursue a science-related topic, she’s now deeply engrossed in the area. “I would recommend this subject area to anyone who has some curiosity in how science works in general, as a form of knowledge, truth, institution, power.”
As the spread of COVID-19 affects every part of life across the world, The New School for Social Research community is putting knowledge into action. Faculty, students, and alumni are sharing their expertise on how the pandemic is affecting immigration, protests, economic policy, workers’ rights, and emotional well-being.
Read on for more from our anthropologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, historians, and more.
Last updated: 5/26/20
Illustration credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
In contrast to the buffoonery masquerading as leadership in the White House at a moment that necessitates the full mobilization of the government, Cuomo’s slideshows project a reassuring image of managerial order—one that has arguably distracted from his missteps, such as the delay in implementing social distancing measures and closing non-essential businesses. Still, the motley aesthetic of Cuomo’s briefings mirrors our own confusion and disorientation…
In other words, the post-Covid future can’t be appreciated using pre-Covid models and modes of valuation. It will be shaped by long-term obligations instead of high-risk/high-reward strategies or stopgap measures that merely shift risk and debt between balance sheets.
When you depict people as dangerous contaminants, you make dehumanization and elimination more likely. This is the precarious situation we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and ‘othering’ in many parts of the world, including the United States.
The COVID-19 Policy Forum from the Schwartz Center for Economics Policy Analysis convenes Economics faculty and students to share their ideas on progressive policies and considerations in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Read updates from Professors Mark Setterfield, Paulo dos Santos, and Willi Semmler, PhD and MA students, and more.
Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development:
They should have built up some buffers against such sudden shocks and risk.
To enable millions of people to focus on the areas of work needed to fight this pandemic, society needs to recognise the valuable public goods that care labour creates, and to reward those performing other essential tasks in line with the social contribution their work makes.
Models are needed for sensible decision-making, but so is sound judgment. For it to be applied, it is essential to recognize that models can be constructed in different ways, reflecting a range of plausible premises.
Barron’s: The Danger of Overreliance on Epidemiological Models (4/29/2020)
Is the coronavirus lockdown justified? One school of thought holds that any societal cost is worth paying to save a life. This seems sensible at first, but we do not honor this dictum in normal times, either in India or globally. We tolerate people dying for lack of resources, often on a mass scale, in developing countries.
The economics discipline has provided the most influential framework for thinking about public policies, but it has proved inadequate, both in preparing for the current emergency and for dealing with it. The pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics and points in some directions that this rethinking should take.
Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, has been been a major voice in advocating for workers’ rights, against budget cuts, and for more compassionate retirement policies:
In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have met the COVID-19 crisis with something not seen in decades: the fascist politics of disease. And no one typifies this brand of politics better than Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.
We are recognizing that we need a more important role for the State, one that gives answers to society. This means that in a context of so much emergency, the market is not everything. The market clearly can not resolve everything.
“Emergencies teach us something about what citizens want and need, and they teach us how to safeguard our economic system from grifters and market dynamics. The Great Depression, and then World War II, pushed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to recognize social needs and respond to them. What progressives refer to approvingly as the welfare state, and conservatives as “creeping socialism” are the same ratchet effect regarded from two different political perspectives.”
When the coronavirus presented them with a choice between letting people die and closing down ‘the economy’, there was no question which the masters would choose. A herd that had already had its most contentious and inquisitive members culled, and that had been rendered submissive, would easily become accustomed to the slaughter of two thousand or so per day.
Netflix is one of the most popular strategies we have against smashing our bug-like faces against the onrushing windscreen of personalized finitude. And as such, it embodies a new kind of digital cogito: “I watch, therefore I am (not).” Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that Netflix itself has become sentient, and is trying to communicate with us, and perhaps even warn us against further dangers to come.
Philosophers have had a long, tortured love affair with social distancing, beginning with Socrates confined to his cell; René Descartes withdrawn from the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (in which he was a participant) into a room with an oven in the Netherlands to ponder the nature of certainty; others like Boethius, Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci, all part of this long tradition of isolation and thought.
He also talks with The Slowdown podcast about how COVID-19 may be rewiring our very being, the need to better understand our anxiety, and how the pandemic is revealing how much we don’t know. Listen to the audio recording here (4/6/2020)
Prof. Critchley discusses mortality, hypochondria, anxiety, and pandemic on The Stone, the philosophy forum at the New York Times that he moderates. Listen to the audio recording here (3/30/2020)
The only way to resolve this contradiction within our current situation is for governments to mercilessly take measures that threaten the private property of capitalists and the “free market.” The more they take control of the private property of necessary industries through nationalization, provide public services and cash payments, and displace market relations by social planning, the more likely it is that we will be able to mitigate the effects of the pandemic while still allowing people to meet their survival needs. In the absence of such changes, human values are powerless against economic value.
This is a strange story to tell: it is about shifting ideals, how time unfolds for an individual, and the will to act or speak at the limit of life. Also, the care one must take when speaking of the dying or the dead.
“Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters (that goes back to the 1840s), and I’m continually struck as well by how often social movements take unexpected turns in all parts of the world. That said, while I hesitate to make firm predictions on this topic, I see good reason to expect a significant resurgence of protests. There have been some even as fear of infection has led to a drop in all kinds of crowd activities.”
It will be extremely tempting for the CCP and the Hong Kong government to use the threat of coronavirus contagion to deny protest permits, and to use aggressive coercive techniques to prevent any “unlawful assemblies.” But the protesters have the support of an exceptionally large number of Hong Kong citizens.
“This is the alarming thing about the transmission of fear. It infects people’s feelings and actions, causing them to behave in ways that often run against their own interests, not to mention their larger obligations to public health and social life.”
Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and head of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility:
With the ability to move about freely sharply curtailed in nearly every country in the world, immigration scholars will need to think hard about a fundamental assumption of the field: that we are living in an “age of mobility.
For the first time in their lives, many Americans are now walking in the shoes of others. Or, rather, not walking. We are confronting government actions, policies, and admonitions that seek to dramatically limit how and when we move.
From these experiences, can we learn empathy for those around the globe for whom mobility is routinely and severely restricted: Syrians refugees trapped in camps on Lesvos, and Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladesh; Palestinians confined to Gaza, and controlled by separation walls on the West Bank; Central Americans pushed out of the United States to wait in border towns in Mexico; Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang; African migrants stopped in boats on the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya; victims of mass incarceration in the United States; poor people everywhere who lack the resources to begin journeys to improve their lives.
Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida, a Politics PhD student:
In short, I am suggesting a generalization of the #CancelRent demand to cover people employed in all non-essential sectors who cannot continue to work from home. However, there is an obvious problem: the interconnection between these two sectors. Even with canceled rent, many who work in the non-essential sector will not be able to pay for their food and common utilities without working.
We know that securely attached adults and securely attached children are not immune to stress. The challenge is to feel able to acknowledge the stress and share one’s unsettling feelings with family members and close friends
…we need calm discussions of our fears. These conversations ought to emanate from high political offices and resonate from personal discussions with family, friends and co-workers. This will naturally lead to sympathetic and supportive behavior that may be seen as heroic problem-solving strategies. These strategies take the form of everyday actions (like washing one’s hands for 20 seconds and restricting self-touch of one’s face), as well as large-scale coordinated scientific efforts at developing treatments (ramping up the production and delivery of life-saving ventilators and protective gear for front-line health care workers) and, longer term, vaccine developments — all this can do much to attenuate the fears currently (and reasonably) felt on a universal scale.
Influencers, bound by contracts and carefully crafted images, simply can’t be that free. The best they can do, Brown says, is “tap into needed resources like safety, community, a sense of trust.” He believes that with Covid-19 sticking around for an indefinite amount of time, the field will grow narrower, as more people will start “congregating” around a smaller group of influencers who can meet their needs.
…we suggest that COVID-19 requires us to prioritize and mobilize as a research and clinical community around several key areas: (a) diagnostics, (b) prevention, (c) public outreach and communication, (d) working with medical staff and mainstreaming into nonmental health services, and (e) COVID-19-specific trauma research.
While mental health services have shown to be inaccessible to many in the United States, research indicates that African Americans encounter added challenges that prevent them from getting the care they need. Among those challenges, according to Thomas Vance…are increased stigma associated with mental health concerns and lack of available culturally competent care
I had already experienced the drama of forced displacement when in 1993 my family had to leave our home in the Abkhazia region of Georgia at the end of the armed Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But strangely, this time, I was going simultaneously through mixed feelings of joy and distress. I was not being forced to abandon my home, but was rushing back to reunite with my family – my wife and two kids — in Georgia.
It’s almost like, since so many of my normal habits, my regular ways of distracting myself from what my heart is saying, have been swept away by the silence of the quarantine, that God’s desire for my attention to go outwards is coming through even stronger.
It is as if Milan, under quarantine, has asked me to renounce the particular version of our American response to fear that I have made my own: the unceasing effort to control, to master, to define and thereby dictate what is really real and truly true. And thereby be secure.
The Pandemic Discourses blog aims to foster an interdisciplinary and global dialogue on the historical, social, and political dimensions of the pandemic. It provides perspectives from different corners of the world, and especially the global South, bringing to the forefront variable and contested understandings of disease, expertise, and society. It includes noted authors from South Africa, China, Brazil, and more.
PanDemos 2020 is the latest initiative from Letters from the Field, a column devoted to news and commentary from TCDS friends and colleagues around the world. PanDemos 2020 focuses on the relationship between democracy and COVID-19, and includes letters from Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and more.
Saladdin Ahmed, Visiting Assistant Professor at Union College:
COVID-19 is the kind of event that has momentarily confused various ruling groups. Clearly, there is a confusion about how much and what kind of information the public should be allowed to access. The confusion is mainly caused by a significant degree of conflict between the priority of the stock market and the possible political consequences of a pandemic. The virus does not have an ideology, but the outbreak will certainly have ideological consequences. It is now time for creativity. It is time to simultaneously reinvent methods of resistance against all viruses and all fascists.
Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.
The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.
relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this
program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn
and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of
the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely
on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a
young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and
become productive adults themselves.”
The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.
“The overarching inquiry of
this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more
beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are
part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and
mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not
participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short
questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as
resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in
semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions.
Research is ongoing, and
involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public
Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the
program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved
five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked
Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an
approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead
of being violent, you could dance it off.”
He signed up to demonstrate
the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight
for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family
visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says
Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try.
And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.”
He’s not the only one whose
life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My
mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for
Marie Borden is a mostly
self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently
joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of
creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary
and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help
students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to
release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with
problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they
feel a lot better.”
When Harvey and Borden talk
about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers
and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those
teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues
to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the
culture that surrounds it.
The 2016 US Presidential campaign and its aftermath have energized international dialogue on the prominence and proliferation of ideological echo chambers, fake news, and so-called “alternative facts.” We are in a moment that is forcing us to face pressing questions about the social nature of facts: how they come about and who feels entitled to ratify or question them.
To address some of these questions, Research Matters spoke with Alin Coman, a doctoral alumnus of the Psychology Department at The New School for Social Research, and currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Coman’s research — initially developed as a graduate student in the lab of William Hirst (the Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology at NSSR) – focuses on the way that social contexts affect our ability to create and recall memories, both as individuals and as groups. Recent political events in the United States and around the world have brought new urgency to Coman’s investigation into how politics and group dynamics can shape and reshape our sense of the past.
Coman was first exposed to the field of collective memory as an undergraduate psychology student at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. At the same time, Professor Hirst was conducting research on collective memory while advising Romanian psychology departments through a rebuilding process that followed their abolition during the communist authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-1989). After completing his undergraduate degree in Romania, Coman followed Hirst back to The New School for Social Research for graduate work.
Under Hirst’s supervision, Coman developed an empirical approach to the study of collective memory in communities of individuals, investigating how our social interactions influence the way that we create, retain, and recall memories. As Coman recently wrote: “Psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong.”
It is this issue that Coman explores in his current work at Princeton.
Take a recent study completed in conjunction with Hirst and fellow NSSR Professor Emanuele Castano. The study asked American participants to confront two sets of stories about soldiers committing acts of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group of participants read that it was the American soldiers committing acts of violence and abuse, while another group — reading about the same acts — were told that they were committed by Iraqi soldiers. “It turns out there’s a huge difference in terms of the cognitive processes individuals undertake as they’re listening to somebody describing these atrocities,” Coman explained. The interpretation of this information is influenced by the group membership of the person exposed to the stories.
This phenomenon extends to the process of remembering and forgetting. According to Coman, when we hear information from people we perceive to be within our group, these sources are, “more likely to reinforce memories that are already encoded.” He adds that they can also “induce forgetting of memories that are related to those that they hear from an [outgroup] source.” Information relayed by people inside one’s own group will “be prioritized in the cognitive system.” This leads to a bias in terms of what gets remembered and what is left to wear away from our memories.