Bringing Feelings of Acceptance and Belonging Within Reach with Postdoctoral Associate Esha Naidu

Esha Naidu, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate
Esha Naidu, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate.

Esha Naidu, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience works closely with Sarah Gaither, Nicholas J. and Theresa M. Leonardy associate professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Makeba Wilbourn, associate professor of the practice of Psychology and Neuroscience. Her research explores how social contexts and individual differences, such as culture, identity, religious beliefs and personality, impact feelings of belonging. Naidu’s work also examines how different kinds of relationships, such as technologically mediated relationships, symbolic social relationships, group memberships and close relationships can fulfill social needs.

Originally from Phoenix, AZ, Naidu received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social-Personality Psychology from the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in your research?  

Growing up as a bicultural person, I always felt that I didn’t quite belong in either American culture or Indian culture, which, was isolating at times, but also helped me appreciate the spaces where I found acceptance and belonging.

Feeling a true sense of belonging is such a powerful experience and I wanted to explore how and when people find ways to connect, which sometimes occurs in unexpected places. During the pandemic — when many usual routes for fulfilling belongingness needs were unavailable — it highlighted how special unexpected routes can be for people who have difficulty getting that feeling of belonging.

For example, people can find a lot of comfort in parasocial relationships — listening to their favorite music, immersing themselves in the fictional worlds of books and TV shows — in addition to the relationships they cultivate in ‘real life.’ It can be reassuring to know that even for those who may be navigating complicated identities or difficult circumstances, feelings of acceptance and belonging are not out of reach.

What interested you in joining Duke?

The most appealing aspect was the incredible work going on in the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab (ID Lab), as well as in the Wilbourn Infant Lab at Duke (WILD).

The ID Lab explores multicultural and multiracial individuals’ experiences and flexible thinking outcomes. As populations become more and more diverse, better understanding the experiences of individuals with multiple identities is extremely important. The findings can impact how we perceive and interact with people of different identities.

In collaboration with the WILD lab, the ID lab also explores how some of these processes play out in children with multiple identities, and how they perceive themselves and others. A project that I’m extremely excited about examines how identity, culture and gesture intersect to improve learning outcomes among minority children.

Some of your work at Duke involves analyzing and coding data, including from the gesture-based intervention you mention, which helps kids learn words more efficiently, particularly children from minority backgrounds who are culturally often more exposed to gesture. What does that analysis work entail?

The incredible teams of undergraduate research assistants and graduate students have been collecting some really interesting data over the past couple of years for this study. The work involves showing children a series of novel objects and teaching them ‘fun facts’ about the objects that were either accompanied by a gesture or not. With the team, I am starting to code the video recordings of the interactions and using the survey data to examine how kids reacted to gesture, and whether or not the children were more likely to remember facts that were accompanied with a gesture or not.

Naidu (second from left) and colleagues from the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab.
Naidu (second from left) and colleagues from the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab.

This work has a theoretical cultural component to it that suggests that minority children in particular might be more sensitive to information accompanied by gesture, and that this may help them better remember that information. We also have some interesting exploratory questions that we can ask with this data, such as whether children learn better when teachers are excited and happy about the information they are teaching, and whether race of the teacher plays a role.

Can you tell us a bit about the study you’re designing to measure the types of experiences people have relating to their diverse or multiple identities and flexible thinking outcomes?

Previous work has suggested that thinking about one’s multiple identities may help to expand one’s worldview — including becoming a more creative problem solver and more open to thinking flexibly about themselves and others. This type of mindset may be particularly accessible to people who are biracial or bicultural, but might also be available to people when they’ve had more intergroup contact, such as having a roommate of another race or travelling to a place with a different culture than their own.

I am particularly interested in why this flexible thinking may be related to the ‘multiple identity mindset’ that has been explored in Sarah Gaither’s research.

Currently, I am exploring what elements of the lived experiences of people with a multiple identity mindset might contribute to these flexible thinking outcomes. It may have to do with how ‘integrated’ one feels in their multiple identities, meaning — if you have two very salient racial identities, and they must frequently consider how to reconcile them, this might lead you to be better practiced in expanding their ideas about identity or culture. This may be related to the flexible thinking outcomes observed in previous work.

What is a “pro tip” for mentorship and teaching that you’ve learned over the years?

One tip that I’ve learned from my teaching mentors is to make whatever material you’re teaching interesting to you. Whether or not you’re teaching about a topic that you’re particularly passionate about, there are always ways to connect it to something that you’re interested in or that you care about. When you’re talking about something that you really care about, you’re more likely to get the students take an interest and want to learn more about it.

When mentoring, I’ve found that it’s important to hold mentees to a high standard, but also to balance this with compassion and understanding. Students have a lot going on in their lives, and I find that being flexible can go a long way in helping them to feel understood and supported while maintaining a passion for learning. Often students are capable of more rigorous thinking than they may expect and by giving them opportunities to push their scientific thinking, in a safe environment, they can practice and grow their writing and research capabilities.

What do you like to do outside of your work?

I like reading science fiction, working out while complaining about working out and desperately trying to keep my cat from eating everything in sight. I also like to go to trivia and karaoke with friends, play Dungeons & Dragons and spend time with family.

What is something that you love about Durham?

I really enjoy the community in Durham. I’ve met many friendly people who are always happy to give recommendations on places to get the best BLT sandwich or where to find the coffee shop with the best vibes. The downtown area has lots of activities to enjoy year-round and the suburban areas have great neighborhood events. I also love that there are beautiful hiking trails both near the city and only a short drive away.