Titans of Science: Deborah Prentice

Deborah Prentice: Fake Entertainment and Free Speech
Deborah Prentice, University of Cambridge

Chris – You mentioned psychology because your particular forte was social psychology, right? Development of social norms and how we conform and do not conform to them. What drew you to it?

Deborah – I was interested in science and math in general. I found my way into biology because I loved the systems thinking of biology. And then I discovered psychology by accident because I had been introduced to it in my coursework and I realized that you can actually apply the methods and thinking of the natural sciences, of biology, the experimental method, to understand how people behave in the social world. You can understand the complex phenomena of social life through the same methods and thought processes that you use to understand the complex processes in a cell or organism.

Chris – And was that at Yale? Have you started thinking along these lines?

Deborah – It was actually still at Stanford. I mean, I was still an undergraduate and I took about five or six psychology courses while I was still an undergraduate. And that got me into a doctoral program in psychology at Yale. So I actually went to Yale claiming to know something about psychology when I only had a few courses and had made up a lot on the side.

Chris – What did you do your PhD in?

Deborah – Really what I was interested in was how we present ourselves and how we present other people and how we differ from them. How we think about ourselves versus how we think about a close friend or how we think about a stranger. Trying to reach what is the essence of myself.

Chris – And you completed that at Yale. Did you immediately take it with you to Princeton?

Deborah – I brought it to Princeton with me, but I very quickly found Princeton to be a very different place from Yale. It was a residential campus. There was a very strong social group ethos. There was nothing on record at Princeton. These were all informal social norms. If you didn’t know, you didn’t deserve to know, and none of the buildings had names, because if you didn’t already know what they were, you didn’t belong there anyway. It had that feeling. And it was the first time in my life that I was in an environment that functioned like the social groups, like the face-to-face groups that I had studied in my small group psychology classes. How they function and the norms of small groups, as well as existing conforming pressures and the ways in which people derive their identity from the groups they separate from. And it was like this giant social group research lab laid out in front of me and it was too good, wasn’t it? It was too good. And I started talking to my students at Princeton. All students work with academic staff on independent research. I had great students early in my career who came in and were my informants about life at Princeton and about all these social groups, and that became the core of my work at Princeton and really the core of my work in my career.

Chris – Where did alcohol research come from? Because it was something he became very famous for.

Deborah – One of my first seniors, named Jennifer Lightdale, was vice president, I think, of her nutrition club. The dining clubs were the social clubs, the core of Princeton social life at the time. And she came over and explained to me about the drinking culture at Princeton, which includes heavy drinking, especially on Thursday and Saturday nights. Not Friday, because there were sporting events on Saturday morning, so everyone had to abstain on Friday night. But Thursday and Saturday nights were the big nights. And that, in fact, drinking was troubling for her. It wasn’t like social drinking. It was very, very heavy drinking.

Chris – Men and women?

Deborah – Men and Women. But she said she’s the only one who feels like she’s the only one who’s worried. Everyone else was having a great time, she was really concerned. And I said, “How do you know they’re not worried?” “Well, they’re having a good time.” I said, “well, doesn’t it look like you’re having a good time?” “Well, yes, I do.” And this is a phenomenon. This disconnect between the behavior that everyone engages in and assumes is authentic to everyone else, versus the personal thoughts and feelings about that behavior and perhaps concerns. I recognized this as a psychological phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance. It happens very often when people publicly conform, if you will, to norms and voluntarily conform to norms that in some sense contradict some of their personal views. In general, what it creates is a social reality that differs from personal reality. So we began to study this in the context of alcohol use on campus. And in fact, we’re part of a very early group of researchers who recognize that heavy drinking, alcohol abuse among college students, in particular, is very often not a medical or clinical problem. This is actually a social problem. And this kind of social problem is not limited to alcohol use, although alcohol use typifies it.

Chris – Did you use that to inform policies afterwards?

Deborah – The existence of this phenomenon then obeyed a particular intervention approach that involved dispelling pluralistic ignorance. If their heavy drinking is driven by the feeling that they have to do this to fit in with society. Then if you show them in reality, and so we do, we show them with data, “look, you actually think that everybody else is more comfortable than you with drinking, but look, everybody thinks that, right? ” You give them a chance to discuss with people in a group why we all think this? And it actually reduces the pressure people feel to drink to be a good member of the group. To fit in. And it reduces, it doesn’t eliminate drinking, but we never wanted to eliminate drinking. We wanted to enable people to drink at the level they feel comfortable with. And that’s actually what we showed in our work.

Chris – There are a lot of parallels with the world we’re in now with social media. People say something because they think it will get likes. They don’t necessarily believe it. And you’ve been quite outspoken in the interviews you’ve given before you took this job that you want to really push free speech and make sure it’s protected in plural universities, not just Cambridge University. You must be seeing something like repetition, but in a slightly different way. Here the story with alcohol develops in a different way.

Deborah – Social media goes both ways. So although on social media, yes, people often express views that get a lot of likes and then that leads them to express an even more extreme opinion to get more likes. At the same time, social media is the means by which people find like-minded people who could not find them in a face-to-face social life, right? So there are a lot of communities around less common types of attributes or opinions that people can actually find others online who feel the same way they do. Social media is just another lens through which the same kinds of self-censorship and self-expression occur around them. That’s what I’m really interested in, how to get people to express themselves. When are they censored? What allows them to say certain things? The social gauze through which people try to express themselves and be recognized by others. And all these filters, if you will, for how we behave in the social world exist in social media as well as in face-to-face life.

Chris – But what do we need to do to make sure we protect debate and free speech in universities? Because we saw a pattern in a number of institutions where people had an opinion about something and their platform was ripped out from under them and they couldn’t share their views. And historically we would have a debate about these things. I think people are right to be concerned that this means we’re not having reasonable debate and discussion and reaching consensus. We’re just censoring people.

Deborah – Yes, exactly. And that’s one of the things I’ve been working on.

Chris – It happened at this university.

Deborah – It happened at all universities. I think the pandemic made it a lot worse because people really didn’t have ways anymore where they could express themselves to each other and have an authentic kind of exchange with reactions to observe and respond to. It was already getting bad with the resulting polarization. There are many things that make people self-censor. And I think the challenges around that, not knowing who you’re talking to, not knowing if you’re going to get a positive reception, make people hesitant to express themselves, to censor their own views, to look for signs of what opinions will be acceptable. It’s just become very, very difficult, I think, the kinds of authentic sharing of views, maybe half-formed views, maybe an exploratory conversation to try to get to the truth of something that many of us remember from our college and university days. I remember that I could speak much more freely than I see people can speak now. So really one of my initial projects here at Cambridge is to look for ways to create spaces that give people the experience of listening to different views, expressing different views. It’s not something that people now come to university with a lot of experience.

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