Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington

Assistant Professor of Social Psychology
London School of Economics and Political Science

I am a social psychologist interested in the mechanisms underlying our human sensitivity to power, status, and group membership: their origins, interactions, and manifestation in societal context.

Research

How do we come to understand our position in society, and how does this affect how we behave? Whether through luxuries brandished on television, political debates in the newspaper, or homelessness visible on the walk to work, the dynamics of unequal societies permeate our everyday experience. My research goal is to contribute to the development of a scientific account of the interface of individual behaviour and social structure, as mediated through intergroup and institutional dynamics. I would like to know how our intuitive sensitivity to power, status, and groups interacts with the social contexts in which we find ourselves, in ways that matter for how we feel, think, and interact. I thus hope to harness the methods and theory of basic psychological science to shed light on the mutual influence of self and society, with implications for addressing issues of real-world consequence. 

See Publications for links to papers 

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Developing a conceptual and empirical framework for the psychology of low socioeconomic status

Building on insights from sociology, public health, and behavioural economics, I apply the tools of experimental psychology to study the long-standing association between low income and suboptimal behaviours, such as unhealthy food choices and risky borrowing. Going beyond past accounts of the supposed irrationality or defective values of the poor, I focus on components of the psychological situation of low socioeconomic status that might play out similarly in any of us (for a similar approach, see Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013), .  I have recently shown that experimentally exposing a middle income sample to scarcity in resources leads to a decrease in perceived personal control, which in turn drives down perceptions of health efficacy. I am currently running follow-up lab studies to see if experiencing scarcity leads to changes in information-processing style, and on differential performance depending on the nature of task stimuli. In line with emerging perspectives from behavioural ecology (e.g. Pepper & Nettle, 2014) and evolutionary developmental psychology (e.g. Frankenhuis et al., 2016), I am developing a framework to understand responses to poverty and adversity in terms not of psychological deficit, but of a 'psychological shift', which may have been adaptive in situations of real resource scarcity in our ancestral environment.

This framework considers not only absolute income but also relative income, in line with the centrality of status and hierarchy position in contemporary and evolutionary environments. In five studies, I have shown how explicit and implicit experimental manipulations of low perceived socioeconomic status lead to decreased sense of power, which in turn depresses one's perception of personal control over life outcomes. Moving from self-evaluations to objective performance, I have obtained evidence from online, student, and low income samples that low perceived socioeconomic status impairs performance on neuropsychological measures of cognitive functioning, as well as complex financial decisions that rely on it. Applying a 'psychological shift' approach, am currently investigating how this effect can be mitigated through fitness-relevant framing of cogntive tasks, and how it might be exacerbated by increasing economic inequality.

This research has been funded by the NSF/Harvard Kennedy School Multidisiplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, the Harvard Interfaculty Initiative on Mind, Brain and Behaviour, the Tobin Porject, and the British Academy of Arts and Sciences (the latter via a 3-year postdcotoral fellowship, 2015-2017).

I am keen to channel insights from this research toward addressing the pressing social problems found to accompany the modern persistence of poverty and inequality. Toward this end, I contributed to the World Development Report 2015 (Mind, Society, Behaviour) as part of a team investigating the psychology of poverty in a six-nation survey, and published a chapter (with Johannes Haushofer) in a UNDP report on the psychology of poverty. I am also working on investigating the generalizability of my work to the Global South in collaboration with the Busara Behavioural Economics Lab in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan. I have recently been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to review evidence on poverty and decision-making in the UK, and would welcome opportunities to work with low income communities here.

Relevant publications

Sheehy-Skeffington, J. (in press). Decision-making up against the wall: A framework for understanding the behavioural dimension of low socioeconomic status. Invited chapter in A. Uskul & S. Oishi, (Eds) Psychology & the Socioeconomic Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J. (2016). Human nature in society. British Academy Review, 28 (Summer 2016).

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Sidanius, J., & Price, M. E. (2016). Decision-making at the bottom of the hierarchy: The cognitive impact of perceiving oneself as low in socioeconomic status. Flash-talk delivered to the Society of Personality and Social Psychology Pre-Conference on the Emerging Psychology of Social Class, San Diego, CA.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J. (2015). Behavioural insights in the age of austerity: How the new ‘psychology of poverty’ can help us to stay focused on society. Angle Journal, 13

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Haushofer, J. (2014). The Behavioural Economics of Poverty. In Barriers to and Opportunities for Poverty Reduction: Prospects for Private Sector Led-Interventions. Istanbul: UNDP Istanbul International Center for Private Sector in Development.

EXPLORING INDIVIDUAL AND INSTITUTIONAL DYNAMICS THAT SERVE TO PERPETUATE INTERGROUP INEQUALITY

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I am currently engaged in a number of empirical efforts looking at the antecedents of intergroup inequality, as they play out from the individual to the institutional level.

With Lotte Thomsen and Jonas Kunst at the University of Oslo and Aarhus University (and in collaboration with the social security registries at Statistics Denmark), I am currently helping set up a longitudinal study of fundamental relational orientations (toward communality, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality), with a view to understanding their origins and ability to predict sociopolitical behaviour and later life outcomes.

With fellow affiliates of the Sidanius Intergroup Relations Lab, I am researching the nature and predictive power of social dominance orientation: a preference for inequality between social groups. Having established its bidimensional structure and its predictive power over time, we have developed and validated a new measure, SDO7. I am now collaborating with Nour Kteily at Northwestern University, Arnold Ho at the University of Michigan, and Oliver Hauser at Harvard Business School, to understand the impact of social dominance orientation on the perception of hierarchy and inequality in society.

I have also take an intergroup approach to ethics in the institutional domain, studying why peers punish whistleblowers, how intergroup attitudes develop among police recruits, and how workplace bullying reveals wider societal conflicts. 

Finally, I have brought my experience as a conflict analyst in the UK Government to bear on understanding the antecedents and consequences of violence intended to disrupt intergroup hierarchies.

RELEVANT PUBLICATIONS

Kteily, N. S., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Ho. A. K. (2016) Hierarchy in the eye of the beholder:  (Anti-)Egalitarianism shapes perceived levels of social inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Sidanius, J., Cotterill, S., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Kteily, N., & Carvacho, H. (2016). Social dominance theory: Explorations in the psychology of oppression. Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Prejudice.

Bratt, C., Sidanius, J., & Sheehy-Skeffington, J. (2016). Shaping the development of prejudice: A latent growth curve analysis of the influence of social dominance orientation on outgroup affect in youth. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin.

Ho, A. K., Sidanius, J., Kteily, N., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Pratto, F., Henkel, K. E., Foels, R., & Stewart, A. L. (2015) The nature of social dominance orientation: Theorizing and measuring preferences for intergroup inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(6), 1003-1028.

Soylu, S. & Sheehy-Skeffington, J. (2015). Bullying as politics: The enactment and maintenance of societal inequality at work. Human Relations, 68(7), 1099-1129.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Thomsen, L. (2015). From Domination to Exclusion: Introducing the Between-group Relational Orientations (BRO) scale as a measure of core relational preferences for both women and men. Invited symposium presentation to the 9th Biennial Congress of the International Academy for Intercultural Research, Bergen, Norway.

Kteily, N.S.*, Cotterill, S.*, Sidanius, J., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Bergh, R. (2014) “Not one of us”: Predictors and consequences of denying ingroup characteristics to ambiguous targets. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1-17.

Thomsen, L., Obaidi, M., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Kteily, N., & Sidanius, J. (2014). Individual differences in relational motives interact with the political context to produce terrorism and terrorism-support. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(4), 377-378.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Goodale, B., & Feiman, R. (2013). Don’t dare tell: Peer responses to whistleblowers in academic, legal, medical, and police settings. Paper presented at the Law & Society Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.  

Examining how the psychology of power operates at the interface of the individual and the social group

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My earlier dissertation research centred on the study of the psychology of power as it plays out in the wider social context. My findings constitute the first experimental evidence for the phenomenon of vicarious power, as manifested in its primary psychological indicator: elevated approach orientation. In six studies, I demonstrated that implicit or explicit exposure to a shared member of a salient social group gaining power leads to an increase in approach orientation in the observer: greater focus on one’s goals, and preference for taking risks in order to achieve them. These effects were strongest among those who most strongly identified with their social group, and went away when the character observed was uncommitted to the group, or was a member of an outgroup. Vicarious power may be rooted in cognitive mechanisms evolved to detect social coalitions, and it likely has motivational effects on those observing group-based patterns of election and promotion to positions of power in society. 

RELEVANT PUBLICATIONS

Sheehy-Skeffington, J. & Sidanius, J. (submitted). Power on my side: Approach orientation tracks the power positions of share group members.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Sidanius, J. (2013). Power on my side: A coalitional psychology approach to the vicarious experience of power. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Human Behavior & Evolution Society Conference, Miami, FL. 

Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Sidanius, J. (2013). Approach orientation tracks the power positions of share group members. Paper presented at the Datablitz of the 14th Annual Meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, New Orleans, LA.