Morality and Identity: How shared norms and values determine the way we see ourselves and interact with others.

Naomi Ellemers studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Groningen, where she completed her PhD on ‘identity management strategies’ in 1991. She was assistant professor and associate professor in social psychology at the Free University in Amsterdam until 1999, when she was appointed full professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Leiden.

She published extensively on a range of issues in group processes and intergroup relations, and edited books on stereotyping, social identity, and behaviour in organizations. She received numerous substantial grants and prestigious awards for her work, including the European Kurt Lewin Award (2008), and the KNAW Merian Award (2010).

Investigating stigmatized groups

Starting with her PhD, Naomi Ellemers’ research interests have always revolved around the phenomenon that individuals tend to be judged on the basis of the groups they belong to. Women, ethnic minorities, or members of other stigmatized groups, such as homosexuals, handicapped, or elderly, often have to cope with situations in which other people underestimate their abilities and ambitions, for instance in educational settings or at work. Instead of judging these people on their individual abilities and merits, we tend to derive a range of expectations about the characteristics they have, the ambitions they are likely to pursue, or the skills they will display, simply based on their membership in these stigmatized groups. Such expectations lead teachers, employers and colleagues to offer less opportunities for learning and development to these people, regardless of their individual abilities or ambitions. Over time, this tends to discourage members of stigmatized groups, so that they start to underperform or even opt out of the educational or employment system. This chain of events is usually not acknowledged, so that the lack of success of members of stigmatized groups in educational and work settings is seen as confirming existing stereotypes and justifying unequal treatment, instead of being recognized as the result of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Focus of research on group-based stigma

The central question driving Naomi Ellemers’ research is how individuals who suffer from such group-based stigma cope with this situation. How do the expectations other people have of them affect their well-being, motivation and performance? What do they do to avoid such stigmatization? When will they join forces to collectively address the injustice of their treatment? Her approach in addressing these questions is quite unconventional, as she combines theoretical approaches and research methodologies that tend to be seen as separate and incompatible. She combines observations in work organizations with controlled laboratory experiments, and uses qualitative interview data as well as measures of heart rate, blood pressure, or cortisol. This enables her to develop models that accurately describe the psychological processes of interest and to apply the insights thus generated to develop effective interventions that can be used in practice

What role does perceived morality play in judgments of individuals and groups?

In her current research, Ellemers focuses on the role of perceived morality in judgments of individuals and groups, and examines how shared moral values are used to define the self, and to determine the way we behave towards others. Whereas prior work has mainly looked at individuals and groups in terms of the competences that they have and the resources they can acquire, a series of studies has convincingly shown that people’s judgments of themselves and others primarily rely on their moral behaviour. In fact, when people have to choose in which information to convey about themselves, they rather appear incompetent than immoral. Likewise, both those who are currently searching for a job and employees at different organizations prefer to work for an organization that behaves morally (e.g., by displaying corporate social responsibility) than for organizations that are competent (in that they are profitable, or can offer long term career prospects). In general people wish to be included in groups that share the same moral values, and more likely to adapt their behavior to norms that indicate which behaviour is considered moral by the group.

The KNAW Merian award

The KNAW Merian Award, sponsored by SNS Reaal Fonds, was instigated by the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) to promote the visibility of women in science. The award is named after Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a natural scientist and artist who to this day is famous for her drawings of plants and insects. The jury selected Naomi Ellemers from 68 nominations they received for this award, because of her commitment to science, the excellent quality of her research, and her visibility in scientific organizations. The jury thinks she is an important role model for young scientists in general and female scientists in particular. Ellemers actively pursues equal opportunities for women in science.

The future

In her future research, Ellemers is planning to introduce neuro-scientific research methods to examine the importance of morality for group interactions and intergroup relations. She is also committed to translating and conveying the results of her research to non-scientists as she is convinced these insights have important implications for policy makers addressing equal opportunities in education and employment and for effective human resource management in organizations.

Last Modified: 18-05-2011