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3-Minute Thesis Winners Probe Motivations Behind Discrimination, Political Violence

Breanna Grow
Illinois State University Graduate School Three Minute Thesis competition winners, left to right: Amani Wise, first place; Megan Donnelly, second place; and Jessica Barrack, people's choice.

From the police killings of Black Americans to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, the events of the last year have forced Americans to grapple with some difficult questions. 

Illinois State University Graduate psychology students Amani Wise and Megan Donnelly went looking for some answers, and their work earned them first and second place, respectively, in this year’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

A total of nine students made their ultra-condensed presentations Thursday night in a virtual iteration of the annual event.

Wise’s research sought to discover whether a “color-blind” approach to race impacted how white people perceive microaggressions against people of color.

Wise said the question came from thinking about existing research that focused primarily on “marginalized populations.”

“Me being a somewhat skeptical individual, I always thought, ‘Well, what about the other side of that coin?’” Wise explained. “People of color cannot be marginalized unless there is some other group benefiting from their privileges in society.”

She came across previous studies that showed people who claim they don’t see color tend not to see subtle discriminatory behaviors--“microaggressions”--as a problem. Why would this seemingly well-meaning view lead some white people to dismiss the concerns of people of color? 

Wise dove in and surveyed 400 white participants, and found the level of awareness of one’s own white privilege held the key.

“White people who are color blind are less likely to notice microaggressions because they don’t think they’re privileged,” she said. “But white people who recognize their white privilege are more likely to notice these transgressions because they are at least aware that they hold a racial privilege that others do not.”

Wise said her findings could be extremely useful in microaggression awareness training to help minimize the occurrence of these behaviors and improve responses when they do happen.

“And given today’s climate, wouldn’t that just be swell?” Wise added.

As first place winner, Wise advances to the 3MT competition at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools and takes home a $750-prize. 

Judges awarded Donnelly second place and a $500-prize for her presentation on the connections between right wing authoritarian beliefs and bullying among high school students. 

Donnelly said school bullying has risen since the 2016 presidential election. She learned that some of the tactics utilized by groups like The Proud Boys and neo-Nazis also are characteristic of high school bullies. So, she decided to investigate.

Donnelly’s survey of 200 high school freshmen found that right wing authoritarian beliefs weren’t always linked to bullying behavior. Only when students reported these beliefs and “moral disengagement”--the rationalization of harmful behaviors--were they more likely to bully their peers. These students tended to say they felt personally victimized, and blamed their victims to rationalize their bullying behavior, she said.

Donnelly said her work shows that teens are just as susceptible to political rhetoric as adults--an understanding that is crucial to addressing politically-motivated violence. 

Virtual attendees also voted Jessica Barrack the people’s choice winner for a presentation of her research finding that a history of concussions is linked to poor mood and sleep, earning her a $750 prize.

ISU Three Minute Thesis first place winner and graduate psychology student Amani Wise says when research on race only looks at underprivileged groups, something just doesn't add up.
Three Minute Thesis Second place winner Megan Donnelly also studies psychology at ISU. Her research finds the common threads among bullies big and small.
Virtual Three Minute thesis viewers chose Jessica Barrack's talk as their favorite. The School of Kinesiology and Recreation grad student noodles on the relationships between brain injuries, sleep and mood.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.