Deborah Prentice
Human Neuroscience
Human Neuroscience

Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Psychology & Public Affairs

Department Chair
Ph.D., Yale University, 1989


predebb@princeton.edu
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609-258-4503
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ESSEMTIALIZING GENDER DIFFERENCE
The notion that women are from Venus and men are from Mars illustrates a human tendency to create distinct social categories. We see some social categories as defined by an essence – a deep, hidden quality that category members share in common, that make them who they are. “Women” and “men” are two such categories.

Princeton psychologist Deborah Prentice investigates how people infer new meanings about gender. Her studies, conducted with Dale Miller of Stanford University, are discussed in the paper, “Inferences About Differences Between Members of Essentialized Social Categories.”

In five studies, the researchers tested how participants will take new information about themselves – such as a new perceptual style identified through a bogus “test” – and apply the attribute to their gender as a whole.

In their studies, researchers created three different scenarios. In the first scenario, a male/female pair of participants was told, after testing, that they differed from each other in a new perceptual style. In the second scenario, a male/female pair was told that they shared the same new attribute. In the third scenario, a participant was told only of his or her attribute.

Findings revealed that male/female pairs who learned that their perceptual styles differed made strong inferences about their new attribute being gender-specific and about it being a stable part of their psychological make-up. Inferences were much stronger in these pairs than in the other two groupings. Four other studies corroborated the results.

“Our deep-seated belief that women and men are fundamentally and essentially different from each other come to the fore whenever we experience a difference from someone of the other gender,” notes Prentice. “That deep-seated belief explains the observed difference, and the observed difference confirms the belief. It is a powerful form of circular reasoning that serves to reinforce our belief in gender difference.”


Research Focus

I study social influence and intergroup relations. I am especially interested in the ways in which social norms, beliefs, and values influence people's perceptions and behaviors in social contexts. Much of my research has focused on gender, and in particular, on the ways in which social beliefs and conventions regarding gender serve to reproduce and sustain gender differences and divisions. I have also studied a number of issues related to college student life, including the social dynamics of alcohol use and the antecedents and consequences of academic and extracurricular choices. My current projects focus on three topics: the influence of essentialist beliefs on intergroup relations, the social consequences of violating gender stereotypes, and the role of personal values in the evaluation of everyday life.


Selected Publications