Psychologist Maureen Craig Studies How Diversity and Inequality Shape Group Relations

Maureen Craig
Associate Research Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience Maureen Craig joins the Duke faculty this year. (John West/Trinity Communications)

As an undergraduate student, Maureen Craig was deeply interested in psychology but didn’t consider the discipline a practical career choice. Pragmatic by nature, Craig instead chose a civil engineering track. But an eye-opening summer internship in the male-dominated field changed her mind.

“I had to find a new major,” she said.

Wanting to hold onto her minor in psychology, Craig took a class on stereotyping and prejudice, a course she now teaches in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience.

“I was the annoying kid who came up after class and kept asking questions,” Craig said. “After a few times, the professor offered to walk and talk on the way back to her office, and eventually suggested that I join her lab.”

Once Craig realized that being a researcher in psychology was “a thing” — that she could study processes and people as a career — it became the clear path.

Now an associate research professor leading her own Diversity and Social Processes Lab, which she started as a professor at New York University prior to joining Duke, Craig studies how different groups of people respond to diversity and inequality. She examines how they affect relationships to others both within and outside of specific groups, as well as how willing people are to address disparities.

Her recent studies have focused on how people can work together to reduce inequality and facilitate more effective coalitions. To do this, Craig and her team pose a series of questions to participants from different racial groups and code their responses, identifying patterns and discrepancies between the groups.

What Craig has found is that white participants tend to be more concerned about being well-perceived than Black participants.

“In this context — people from different social groups trying to reduce inequality — different concerns are activated,” Craig explained. “If you're a member of the majority group, that might activate concerns about being seen as a good person, because the perpetrator role is really salient. If you’re a member of the minority group, that might activate concerns about empowerment.”

In another study, participants read information about a Black person or a white person taking part in different activities associated to social justice — going to a protest or signing a petition, for example — and rate how “effective, helpful and appropriate” they believe that behavior to be.

Generally, respondents believe that it was more appropriate for the Black person to engage in these activities than for the white person to do the exact same thing; however, the gap was larger among white participants, who were more concerned about a white person being inappropriate.

“What this suggests is that the white participants were especially concerned about appropriateness when it's an ingroup person acting,” Craig explained. “These are all people who, in theory, are supportive of the goals of reducing inequality, but their concerns might make that difficult to navigate.”

When asked how her research can translate to the everyday — from performative behavior to daily interactions to the American political sphere — Craig notes that people often think of her as an applied researcher, although she is not. “I think it's a function of the types of real-world topics I study,” she said. “My goal is to understand what's going on, and then to give people language to understand what's happening.”

Craig’s work has had notable applied outcomes though. Some of her earliest research, co-authored with Jennifer Richeson, influenced the language used by the U.S. Census Bureau about race and demography. Her work also explores domains of health, economics and belonging — finding that racial disparities in health outcomes is broadly viewed as a moral shortcoming that can motivate action across social groups. 

At Duke, in addition to teaching a seminar class on the psychology of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, Craig will also teach a graduate-level statics class beginning in 2024. “It’s my favorite class to teach,” she said. “Oftentimes, students come in with some anxiety around math and stats, and it's very satisfying to show them the logic behind what testing does. We analyze a lot of imperfect data and get used to dealing with the types of data analysis issues common to researchers.”

Drawn to Duke by its support for behavioral research, Craig is excited to explore the Triangle on foot — completing her ninth marathon this year with a plan to run the Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon in 2024. She recalls her first visit to Durham as alluring. “I didn't really have expectations about the city, though everyone I talked to who has lived in Durham raves about it,” she said. “I remember walking around and it feeling very comfortable and nice.”