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Interview with Dr. Kristin Laurin

Updated: Dec 5, 2020


Journalist: Jeryn Anthonypillai

Jeryn Anthonypillai: Hello and welcome to SciSection. My name is Jeryn Anthonypillai and I'm a journalist for SciSection radio show broadcast on the CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Kristin Laurin, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Thanks so much for joining us today

Dr. Kristin Laurin: Thanks so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: Of course! To start us off, could you provide a quick background about yourself?

Dr. Kristin Laurin: I am Canadian grew up in Montreal, fell in love with psychology when I was an undergrad who thought I wanted to study health sciences and I have not looked back.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: Awesome. So what would you say is your primary focus in research?

Dr. Kristin Laurin: In my research, this is kind of a constantly evolving question. I ask myself, cause I find that I have so many interests and sometimes it's hard to see kind of what the thread that connects them is. But recently I've been thinking about it in terms of, I'm interested in divides. So for example, the divide between the rich and the poor and the society that we live in, or the divide between liberals and conservatives and all kinds of different countries and political contexts, and the divide between, you know, what a sort of a perfectly rational, person or brain might believe and the things that we sometimes choose to believe that are totally not rational or totally not based on the fact. So all those, all those divides, trying to understand what causes them, how we can bridge them. I would say is what I am interested in these days.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And I think that through your work, you definitely question a lot of things and you have created a lot of thought-provoking publications. For example, your past work, Motivational Accounts of the Vicious Cycle of Social Status: An integrative framework using the United States as a case study was very interesting. So could you go over the main concept you wanted the reader to take from this publication?

Dr. Kristin Laurin: Yeah. So when we started thinking about this, what we realized was that there's a big divide in terms of how people understand what I'm going to call the intergenerational transmission of wealth. So the fact that people who are born into families that are relatively poor, tend to grow up to be relatively poor themselves. And so there's sort of one set of ideas that says the reason that happens is because the system is broken. So when you're born poor, it kind of doesn't matter how hard you try. It doesn't matter what you do. You can't climb out of that. And then there's another set of ideas that says, no, no, no, the system is not broken at all. Something you might call the American dream, even though we're in Canada is alive and well, right? People who try hard get to the top, people who don't try hard stay at the bottom and there's no problem. And so our contribution, I think with this paper is to bring some nuance to that disagreement and say that actually, we think one of the ways that the system is broken is that it makes it really hard to even try if you're at the bottom to try to get to the top. And what we mean by that is the context of poverty. So the context of growing up and being a child, and then being a teenager, and then being a young adult from a family that's relatively poor, undermines your motivation to try to achieve status, to try to get rich, to try to kind of climb the social ladder, in really systematic ways. So we basically in the paper, we go through some examples of how that works. And so I can give you a couple here. Of course, feel free to stop me at any time if I'm just kind of droning on. But, so one way that this works is you can imagine through stereotypes, right? So we have a lot of stereotypes about how the poor are dumb and lazy and the rich are really competent and driven, and those stereotypes have a way of becoming internalized. So if I'm a kid in a classroom where my teacher holds those stereotypes and kind of treats people who are from a poor background differently than students who are from a wealthier background, kind of reinforcing that message at the end of the day, I might start to think, well, you know, maybe the teachers, right? And maybe I am kind of, not as smart, not as driven, don't have as much competence as other people. And if I think that about myself, then it kind of makes it less worthwhile to try to, you know, get their really prestigious, fancy education or a prestigious fancy job that could kind of help me raise my standing in life. Another way you can think about this working is if you grow up poor versus you grow up rich, you grow up in a really geographically different space in a physically different space, right? So if you were growing up poor, you're going to see a lot more examples of people in your neighbourhood. People who are like you not getting ahead, right. Working really hard and just kind of getting stepped on, stepped on, stepped on, by the system and by bad luck, cause they don't have a lot of resources to fall back on and things like that. And so you're going to come away with a sense that the world is just not that fair. Whereas if you grew up rich, you don't, you just don't see as much of that. Right. What you see is things going really pretty well for people being rewarded when they should and people, getting ahead when they're trying hard, because the only people you're seeing are other people like you. And once again, that idea that the world is not fair, that we think the context of poverty sort of convinces you to hold and maybe kind of accurately, whereas the context of wealth kind of protects you from having to see that the world isn't fair, is also really de-motivating right. If, if the world isn't fair, then there's no point in me trying hard. And we go through a bunch of examples like that, of research that's shown kind of how the context of poverty undermines these beliefs that are really critical to supporting a motivation, to try to, you know, achieve a higher status in the world. And that we argue that that's a kind of an often-overlooked factor, right? So if you see someone who's poor, who's not really trying to get themselves out of poverty. The temptation is to think, oh, what a lazy person, good thing, you know, the system is working in, they're still poor, but we're saying, no, they're not inherently. There's not anything inherently different about that person, about another person, it's their context. That's undermining their motivation and causing that kind of behaviour.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And I think that's definitely something that we can all take a step back and think about. And another item of your work that I really liked was Corporate Personhood: Lay Perceptions and Ethical Consequences. And it discusses that people allocate greater ethical responsibilities to corporations, but not to humans. It was really interesting to think about. So what was your inspiration for your work on that?

Dr. Kristin Laurin: So with that paper, we were just inspired by kind of how common it is for corporations to either make ethical mistakes or try to, you know, make up for their ethical mistakes or put in place programs that they're trying to get kind of ethical points for, right. Like diversity hiring programs or you know green energy type programs. And we wondered you know, how seriously do people take these kinds of efforts at being ethical. Right. Do people look at a company and see them, let's say trying to sort of donate some of their profits to an environmental cleanup initiative. And do they think like, wow, like what a great corporation, they must really care about morality or do they think more cynically? Oh yeah. You know, there they go. They're just kind of out to get our goodwill and ultimately our, you know, brand loyalty or whatever it is that they might be after. And what we thought was that one key way to think about this is to think about whether people, when they're looking at that, are they thinking, Oh, look at that person who made that decision for that company or are they thinking, Oh, look at that company and the kind of big conglomerate sort of entity. And what we found was that when people are thinking about, oh, look at that person who made that decision on the behalf of that company, we think that that decision is really moral. We think that that decision reflects morality. We think that that decision is something that you know, which means that basically, the person is a good person. Whereas when we think, oh, look at that sort of conglomerate company that made that decision, that's when our cynicism kicks in, we're not really equipped to think of conglomerate companies as sort of having moral values. And so when we think it's the conglomerate company that made the decision, it doesn't really occur to us like that. It could have been done for more reasons. We assume it must have been done for you know, self-interested reasons or things like that.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And through all of these researches, what do you think is the most intriguing thing you have learned?

Dr. Kristin Laurin:

Well, I'll talk about something that we've learned more recently that actually doesn't have anything to do with either of the papers you just asked about. So hopefully that's okay. The research question that we have asked ourselves lately is looking at political divides, right between liberals and conservatives or on specific issues. Like, are you pro-life or pro-choice or do you think, you know, there should be a carbon tax or there shouldn't be a carbon tax or all these kinds of issues that really divide us.

Dr. Kristin Laurin: One thing that past research has repeatedly found is that people do not want to hear from people they disagree with.

Dr. Kristin Laurin: Right? So if I am pro carbon tax, I don't want to talk to people who are anti-carbon tax. I don't want to read something that somebody who's anti-carbon tax has written. I think that they're wrong. I think their beliefs are legitimate and I don't want to engage with them. And that's sort of part of what drives the growing polarization that we're seeing in our society today, where people are just kind of more and more you know, sticking in their own groups and the gap between the groups is growing. And so the question that we had was, okay, so people aren't willing to bridge the divide between them and their opponents themselves. They don't want to go talk to their opponents themselves, but what if one of their friends does it, like, what if one of their own political allies says, listen, guys, I'm on your side, but I'm going to go talk to those people over there who are against the carbon tax. I'm going to figure out where they're coming from. What we thought based on all the literature was that we would look at that person or people would look at that person and think what a trader, right? You're going to go talk to the other side. You think that they have a legitimate belief that's possible for you to understand you think they're not just bad people. Now I'm really suspicious of you. Now. I don't even know if you're on our side now. I don't even know if, you know if I can trust you, let alone those other guys, but instead what we found and we had to do this study like over and over and over again before we believed it. But we finally have had to accept it. What we found is that people really like that. So even though people themselves, if I let's say I'm pro-choice, I don't want to go talk to people who are pro-life if my friend who's pro-choice does that for me, even if by implication, he sort of suggesting, well, maybe they kind of have a point. Maybe some of their beliefs are actually well-founded and they have reasons for believing what they believe. I really like it when he does it. I really approve of that. And I actually don't like people who do what I myself do. And so that was really surprising to us because you know, it gives us a way forward. It gives us kind of like a glimmer of hope that maybe, we can sort of try to bridge some of this. This partisanship is polarization by, you know, advertising this research and telling people, Hey, your friends are really gonna like it. If you do this, your friends are really gonna like it. If you're willing to take this step and be brave and go talk to people, you disagree with it. We think maybe that can, you know, be a force for maybe some good in the world.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And for a final question, what made you interested in pursuing research in all these topics?

Dr. Kristin Laurin: I mean, I'll just take it back, I guess, to when you asked me about my background, like the reason I wanted to study health when I was starting, my undergrad degree was that I really, you know, I wanted to learn about myself and I thought the best way to do that was to learn about my body, hence the study in health. And then I discovered psychology and I realized, wow, like, this is even more about me than the body, right? The mind understanding the mind and how that works. That's even more going to let me understand myself and who I am. And so I guess what you would, what I would have to then admit is that my initial motivation for studying psychology and being interested in all these questions is just like a really selfish, you know, desire to understand me and where my thoughts come from and where my feelings come from. But, you know, as I've gotten more and more, you know, wrapped up in this field, I can see so many other reasons to do it too. And like trying to understand, I actually think of it more now as trying to understand the world that we're living in and where we're headed. And sometimes it feels a bit scary. Sometimes it feels like things are, you know, are just always getting worse. And so trying to understand, you know, why that may be happening and how we might be able to change course, is something that inspires me more now than I would have known it would when I started.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: Awesome. So that brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you again for joining me today.

Dr. Kristin Laurin: Happy to.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And that's it for this week of SciSection, make sure to check our podcasts available on global platforms for all our latest interviews!


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