You Gotta Know: A Q&A with Keith Maddox

Associate Professor of Psychology Keith Maddox is pictured. Kelvin Ma / Tufts University

Keith Maddox is an associate professor in the psychology department and the director of the Tufts University Social Cognition Lab. His research centers around prejudice and implicit bias, and his lab explores the connections between our social cognition and stereotyping. The Daily sat down with Maddox to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on his research and his teaching.

Tufts Daily (TD): Tell us a bit about your background before coming to Tufts. 

Keith Maddox (KM): I grew up in Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I ended up going to the University of Michigan … and graduated from there in 1991 with a bachelor’s in psychology. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do once I graduated, so I took a year off and worked for the university. I ultimately decided to go to a Ph.D. program for social psychology, so then I went to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I left that program a little bit early in 1997, which is when I started at Tufts. In my first year here, I was a lecturer working on my dissertation. I finished my dissertation and then at that point, I was hired as an assistant professor. So, I have been an assistant professor here at Tufts since 1998.

I do research on stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination for the most part in a couple of different areas. The area I focus on is called racial phenotypicality bias, which is the extent to which people we think about racial groups and racial categories. We know that people of different racial groups have different appearances, and we also know that people don’t have [a] uniform, same appearance within groups — they vary. Some people have lighter skin or darker skin, and then the shape of our nose and our eyes can differ as well. But there are certain cues and markers that make us think about people’s appearances belonging to particular racial groups or not. What I am interested in is the extent to which people use these features to decide what race a person is and how they categorize them … then also whether or not if they ultimately decide that somebody belongs to a particular racial group, does it matter how typical of the group they look? So, if you are an African American person that has light skin tone and straight hair, are you thought of in the same way as an African American person who has a dark skin tone and curly hair? What the research suggests is that we are sensitive to those differences. Even though we might call somebody Black, we don’t necessarily use the same stereotypes to make judgments about them; we use similar stereotypes but maybe not to the same degree for someone who is less physically typical of the group.

Another research area I’m interested in is getting people to talk about race and talk about racial bias. I want to encourage people who may be reticent to talk about racial bias … to feel more comfortable approaching those conversations. Usually, that focuses on white people and trying to get white people to feel comfortable talking about race, particularly with Black people. I focus on that dichotomy in a lot of the work that I do … in some ways, it does generalize to other group dimensions and other challenging and difficult topics and conversations. The other side of that is if you are a Black person and you want to confront [someone] about something that they might have said that could be biased or if you’re trying to convince them that you know bias is a thing and that we need to address it. People of color tend to be seen much more negatively when they confront issues of racial bias compared to majority people. This is called backlash, and they are thought of as being self-interested and biased in their viewpoints. They are thought of as complainers in terms of … just explaining negative outcomes they may have had. Oftentimes what that does is it leads to discredit them personally, but also discredit the arguments that they’re making, too. We try to understand ways that people of color can confront in ways that are going to be valued.

TD: You study stereotyping and implicit bias; how do you think this summer of the Black Lives Matter movement has or will impact your research in the future?

KM: I’m not sure it will. It’s not changing what I do but maybe the idea of who we study. [COVID-19] has prevented us from doing some of the in-person studies that we would typically do with undergraduate students at Tufts. It’s actually forcing us to do something that’s good, which is reaching out and trying to find broader and more representative populations. The problem with that is you have to do those online. Sometimes when you’re doing social psych research the in-person stuff allows you to sort of get at certain issues and certain questions that you can’t get at online, so it may limit, to some extent, some of the questions that we can ask, but the benefit is that it helps us reach a broader population. So I can have a research study that includes people that would never ever come to my lab on campus at Tufts. So I guess there’s sort of trade-offs. Not to say that every Tufts student is like this, but Tufts students are younger, more liberal, and a little more issue-aware. If you’re thinking about a population that you can reach via the internet, there’s going to be some education and access issues that get in the way there. But in general, they’re just broader. They’re more diverse than what a Tufts student or a population of Tufts students would be … hopefully, that’ll help us to generalize some of our research.

One other thing [is that] I and another professor, Sam Sommers, do bias workshops. In these workshops, we try to raise people’s awareness of implicit bias to get them to see their role in helping to create organizational change and more systemic change. The idea is that most people don’t like to think of themselves as being biased or racist or sexist, but implicit bias is tricky. It is this way of getting people to recognize that some of the biases are not things they are aware of, and hence, they could still influence their judgement behavior. The biases that we have that are implicit … [and] come from the broader culture and the messages that we get about people and about groups based on how they represent them. All of these things are subject to historical factors and not necessarily one person’s bias, but lots of individual biases that have built up over time. These societal biases have helped to create disparities in outcomes and disparities in opportunities. It does really go against our egalitarian sense and our norms that we need to think about treating people fairly. So, we try to get people to realize that although implicit biases might be outside of your control, and you may not think of them as being your fault, the idea is that we can still work to make our judgments and to make our procedures and processes more just. We have done this for a long time, but I think people are more into it now and starting to get the message. Because of [Black Lives Matter] and post-George Floyd, we are getting more requests [for trainings]; people are starting to recognize some of the relevance of it a little bit more, and so that’s potentially going to make us a little bit more busy.

My own workload has been ridiculous because …  people of color on campus are relatively underrepresented. We’ve always been going through these sorts of efforts to try to think about how race and gender and ethnicity and other aspects of identity and underrepresentation impact people’s lives on campus … If we’re going to have a committee to talk about this, we need to have people of color who are represented on that committee. These efforts have happened at Tufts before, so I have become a little tired and jaded … but the intensity now feels a little bit different. It feels like people are more on board with actually making change, so I am cautiously optimistic, but I am still a little defensive. Because I’m on a ridiculous number of committees in terms of trying to address these things … that would ostensibly affect me, which means that I have less time to do the stuff that I came here to do, which is to do research and teach and interact with students. 

TD: Pivoting now toward your teaching and Zoom. How do you think it is going for your classes?

KM: I have two relatively small classes. It’s really too early to tell because we haven’t gotten into the rhythm of the semester yet … but, so far, it’s going OK. There are some upsides to Zoom in terms of speaking to and connecting to some extent with students. These are things that I probably would not have spent time doing standing in front of them in a room because everybody’s there waiting for me … but now, since everyone is at home and comfortable … I don’t feel as much pressure to have everything at the ready. I’ll take some diversions and things like that from time to time to go to find a website or to look up some information or walk them through something that I wouldn’t have done normally in class … People can hear me well, I can see [faces] for the most part and get a sense of how people are responding … I have to admit that I’m not as concerned or not as dismayed about having to do things this way.

Another thing is I am perennially late to class. I am usually in my office getting ready for class and lose track of time before I have to walk over to the classroom. But now, that doesn’t happen as much anymore … I’m getting ready for class right up until class. 

I will say I am still figuring some things out. You can think and plan through everything, but at the end of the day, you still have to be flexible. I have a sketch of how I want things to go, I’ll give it a shot for the first couple weeks and see how it goes. But I’m always up for revision. I say that knowing that students need some sense of stability … it’s important to sort of have a structure in mind but also be willing to be flexible about that structure for students.

TD: At the beginning you mentioned you’ve been a professor here for a long time. How do you keep things exciting and interesting?

KM: In terms of content, you need to update the course material to match the current knowledge. Technology and resources have changed a lot over the years … I’m going to figure out a way to start using Tik Tok videos a little bit more in some of my classes. You have the development of social media and the types of things you can share. For a while, I had sections in my stereotyping and prejudice class [interact on] a Facebook page … when people were using [the platform]. The idea was that people would have discussions on Facebook … they could post a meme, or they could post an article that they saw or they read, and people could talk about that in the context of Facebook. I’ve been using Canvas a bit more to try to make sure that students don’t have to go to 50 different places in order to participate in the course. Now, there are ways to [track] student engagement … with data that’s more reliable than just using your memory that helped me to make adjustments and changes to how I go about approaching topics. 

TD: Any final thoughts or comments to the Tufts student body?

KM: It is so important to remember that this is a real public health crisis. The plan Tufts has in place is strong, but it is going to require everyone to follow the guidelines and regulations. Hopefully, people remember that as well. As their faculty should have compassion for them, they should have compassion for their faculty, too.