Mikki Hebl’s unique teaching methods showcased during Cherry Award finalist lecture

What do “mindbugs,” gorillas and polar bears have in common?

Not much, unless you’re Michelle “Mikki” Hebl, who used these three things to illustrate with humor and sincerity her research on interpersonal discrimination in an Oct. 5 lecture to a crowd of more than 200 Rice University faculty, staff, students and special guests.

Mikki Hebl lectures on interpersonal discrimination to a crowd of more than 200 Rice students, faculty and staff.

The Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology, Hebl is one of three finalists for Baylor University’s 2016 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, one of the country’s top collegiate teaching honors. The lecture was one of her required activities as an award finalist.

In her talk, Hebl used several of her own research experiments, hands-on activities, videos clips and demonstrations that her own students at Rice have created to educate the audience on interpersonal discrimination, which she described as “subtle but serious.”

Overt discrimination — racial, gender, religious and more — has existed since time immemorial. Over the years, the government has attempted to intervene through legislative action. While some may think these measures have made overt discrimination a thing of the past, Hebl said it has led to more subtle and interpersonal forms of discrimination. And while some may brush off interpersonal discrimination as “just little molehills,” Hebl said, “it is the molehills that can make a mountain of difference.”

“Research shows that forms of interpersonal discrimination can be just as harmful, if not more, than overt discrimination,” she said.

Hebl discussed several studies conducted by her laboratory that showed how pregnant women, overweight people, LGBT people and individuals of different races and religions experienced interpersonal discrimination when applying for jobs. She said that all of these study participants encountered “strong signs” of subtle discrimination. For example, their conversations with potential employers were shorter, with fewer words spoken and more perceived negativity.

Edward Adelson’s checkerboard figure (Photo credit: Edward Adelson)

Hebl engaged the audience in a few activities involving biases so that they could understand firsthand the behaviors that lead to interpersonal discrimination. In one exercise, Hebl presented an optical illusion where one square on a checkerboard appeared to be a different color than another square on the board. In reality, the squares were the same color. She used this to suggest that people who seem more different (for example, in race or gender) may actually be more similar than we think. She joked that when she shared the illusion with her husband, he didn’t believe that the squares were the same color.

“Even in the face of objective evidence, people rely on their own perspectives, or mindbugs (visual or cognitive conflicts that alter the way people interpret information),” Hebl said. She said that people often rely on mindbugs in their interaction with other people, particularly those of different religions, ethnicities and genders. Instead of taking into account the circumstances surrounding these other people, they often rely on their own understanding or stereotypes, which can result in forms of interpersonal discrimination.

A supportive Rice University crowd gathered to hear Hebl's lecture.

In another exercise, Hebl used pictures of polar bears to explain thought suppression and self-regulation. The late Daniel Wegner, who taught psychology at Harvard University, conducted the original research. Hebl asked the audience to not think about polar bears for five minutes and asked them to raise their hands if they thought of polar bears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the audience had a difficult time not thinking about polar bears, as evidenced by multiple hands going up.

Hebl said this exercise demonstrated an important point that has played out in her research experiments. She said that when people spend so much time trying to not think about something, it can become mentally exhausting and can result in the individual “rebounding” and thinking about or saying the very thing that they’re trying to avoid. For example, if an individual is focusing hard on saying something nondiscriminatory, it can result in the opposite.

Hebl then used a video to further illustrate this point. The video featured athletes passing a basketball back and forth. The audience was asked to count the number of passes by the people wearing white. However, in doing so, most of the audience missed a bear (which she referred to as a gorilla, due to copyright restrictions) moonwalking across the screen.

“(As humans,) we have selective attention,” Hebl said “When we are looking at certain things, we often miss others.” She encouraged the audience to think about this idea in terms of interpersonal discrimination. Although individuals may focus on saying things that are nondiscriminatory, it may require so many cognitive resources that people don’t pay attention to their nonverbal communication, which may be negative.

Ultimately, Hebl said she hoped her lecture taught the audience that while discrimination has changed, “the more subtle bias is pernicious.”

“There are many examples of biases, and hopefully you saw that you yourself are biased,” Hebl said. “Interpersonal discrimination is influenced by problems with self-regulation, limited attention and stereotypes, but awareness and strategies to reduce discrimination can help.”

Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence invited the Rice community to Hebl’s lecture and provided refreshments afterward.

Hebl will present a second lecture at Baylor Oct. 19. As a finalist, she has already won $15,000 for herself and $10,000 for her department. If she wins the award, she will receive $250,000 for herself and $25,000 for her department. The winning professor will be announced by Baylor in spring 2016. For more information on the award, visit www.baylor.edu/cherry_awards/.

For more information on Hebl and her research, visit http://bit.ly/1hrcXiS.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.