Kudos Column: Dr. Lindsey Levitan
The kudos column showcases the work of junior political psychologists. Whether you want to know more about what political psychology is, want to see how junior scholars have shaped their careers, want to find research collaborators or want to contribute and get your name out there, this column is for you! This month we are showcasing the work of Dr. Lindsey Levitan.
Background and Current Position
I am an assistant professor of psychology at Shepherd University, a primarily undergraduate institution near Washington, D.C. I was previously an assistant professor of political science at Stony Brook University, allowing me a foothold in both political science and psychology. My Ph.D. is in social psychology from the University of Chicago.
Attitudes are a critically important construct with enormous potential to influence a wide range of behaviors from discrimination to voting. Yet not all attitudes are so impactful, and the social world is essential to understanding why. Social connections can motivate us to think about issues and candidates in new ways, or they can suppress our consideration of alternate perspectives. My research focuses upon this interplay between the social environment and individuals' attitudes, prejudices, and behavior.
One primary line of research examines the impact of the attitudes of those around us upon the durability and impactfulness of our own attitudes. This research demonstrates that when close others agree with us about an issue, our own attitudes are bolstered, whereas when those around us hold a greater variety of attitudes, our own attitudes are weakened (Levitan & Visser, 2009). This occurs partly for social reasons, and partly for more argument-based reasons. When faced with disagreeing group members, individuals are more likely the change their views, even in the absence of new persuasive information, especially when group members are unified in their dissent (Levitan & Verhulst, under revision). People embedded in attitudinally heterogeneous networks also consider new information more carefully (Levitan & Visser, 2008), and even seek out new information more frequently (Levitan & Wronski, 2014), as compared to those surrounded by likeminded others. This influence is also contextually bounded, such that it disappears in moral contexts, where attitudes are more resistant to persuasion (Ben-Nun-Bloom & Levitan, 2011).
A second line of research builds on these principles to understand social influences on prejudice. Results show that individuals who are surrounded by others with a similar level of prejudice (or egalitarianism) have more deeply entrenched prejudices: they are less likely to change their views, and more likely to act in accordance with their level of prejudice. Furthermore, their prejudice has greater influence on relevant political attitudes (e.g. gay marriage).
Some of these works have been published in Political Psychology, Political Behavior, and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
I find teaching particularly rewarding, especially teaching research. In the classroom, I have taught both psychology and political science students in various courses. At the undergraduate level, I have taught primarily courses in statistics and research methods, but I also teach content courses including introductory psychology and political psychology. I have also taught courses like political psychology and social influence at the graduate level (MA and PhD). I find teaching statistics to be particularly rewarding because students often come to class with some anxiety (or dread), and truly appreciate it when my teaching makes the material clear to them. Research methods, too, is rewarding because I get to watch students' excitement about being able to answer their own questions empirically for the first time, rather than learning about what someone else has discovered.
Outside of the classroom, I enjoy teaching research by taking on research assistants, and mentoring student projects. Students often bring a fresh new perspective to research, and their input has the potential to take research in exciting new directions.
I aspire to find balance in my career – not only balance between career and personal life, but also balance between teaching and research. As graduate students, we are often taught that teaching is something that you squeeze in while you focus on research. Even as professors, this socialization can continue. I have found this to be a false dichotomy, however. I am at my most productive in research when I bring students into the process as assistants and as co-authors. Students bring a fresh perspective that can liven up research that may have been languishing. Additionally, helping students to learn about research brings clarity and helps me reconceptualize my projects. Even in the classroom, I find that teaching helps me to spot unanswered questions and opportunities for synergy across disciplinary and subdisciplinary boundaries. In short, I like research, and I like to teach. My goal is to continue in a career path that recognizes that balance, and (as I advance in my career) to influence our institutions and subculture to make such balance easier for others to maintain in their own careers.