How Social Psychology Can Change the World: A Sit Down with Ms. Stacey Makhanova

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Why do people do what they do? What makes someone decide to become friends with someone else? How does someone’s background affect the way they interact with other people?

These are just a few of the thought-provoking questions that Ms. Stacey Makhanova has asked herself as she has lived, studied, and learned about the human condition in places around the world. Ms. Makhanova received her Masters degree in social psychology at Florida State University and is now in her fifth year as a graduate student in the social psychology Ph.D. program here. She teaches social psychology to FSU undergraduates while concurrently working on research in multiple labs at FSU.

“FSU has a wonderful social psychology program and it is so collaborative. When you bring minds together, they only have more information.” Stacey told me when I asked why FSU was the choice for her. With Dr. Jim McNulty, Dr. Jon Maner, Dr. Ashby Plant, and fellow graduate students in her department, there is no shortage of inspiration and mentors for Ms. Makhanova to collaborate and learn with here at FSU.

From Russia to San Francisco, Arkansas to Florida, living among various cultures and growing up around a range of different people stimulated a curiosity in Ms. Makhanova, causing her to ask, why do people make the decisions they make and do what they do? Beginning as a researcher of animal behavior, Makhanova now realizes how similar people are to animals and uses this as a perspective to figure out how these animalistic similarities influence everyday human social behavior.

Part of Ms. Makhanova’s research is conducted in the Plant Lab at FSU, named for Dr. Ashby Plant: a professor and researcher at Florida State. In this lab, Makhanova works with Dr. Plant and Dr. Jon Maner as well as fellow graduate students to conduct research into “how pathogen concern can affect categorization processes and other biases toward groups heuristically associated with disease.” In other words, how the desire to not get sick can influence people to avoid those they perceive as different from themselves or generally unhealthy.

Dr. Jon Maner is one of Makhanova’s closest collaborators for her research concerning social biases and motivation. Along with her work in the Plant Lab, Makhanova works with Dr. Maner in The Evolutionary Psychology Lab at FSU. In this lab, she has worked in many areas of research including, “behaviors of newlywed couples in problem-solving discussions, pregnant women’s affiliative behavior with friends and family, and women’s social perceptions across the menstrual cycle” just to name a few. “Jon Maner has really great theoretical insights that help me bring things together and figure out what is important in the research and how to pitch it” Makhanova said about Maner.

One area that specifically interests Ms. Makhanova is looking at how one’s motivation to avoid disease and sickness can influence and exacerbate prejudices. When a person is trying to avoid illness, they may be more likely to avoid people who are different from them or different from a “normal, healthy” person. Ms. Makhanova sees this issue manifest itself in everyday life when she sees coverage on the news about mass illness or an outbreak of a disease and she thinks about how an article like that can increase people’s prejudices.

Ms. Makhanova’s research primarily looks into how biological and motivational processes affect prejudice and bias. With the current climate of civil unrest in our society today, research that gets to the psychological root of what could cause prejudice and stereotyping can be delicate, but it is crucial to understanding our social issues and improving our country.

Social issues like prejudice, bias, and stereotyping can be sensitive topics to tackle and teach. Makhanova’s method is to approach the subject from a data driven point of view. Explaining the results of a study to demonstrate how people objectively tend to show bias allows students to come to their own conclusions and see how the results may be relevant in their own lives and community.

When asked what her philosophy of teaching is, Ms. Makhanova was quick to answer, “One of the biggest things I want to do for students is to make them feel that they are not just a number.” In a class of over 200 students, this is an impressive goal. However, you can easily see her dedication by stepping into her classroom and seeing how she calls on students by name as they raise their hands to answer her questions.

Witnessing her effective and personal teaching style, it is no surprise that she has been recognized for her efforts by being awarded the Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award in 2016. She was one of only six graduate students at FSU to receive this award, and she was nominated for the award again for 2017.

The motivation behind Ms. Makhanova’s research is an understanding and empathetic relationship to those around her. With her students, she listens and learns about them to understand how to best reach them. With her research, she aims to reveal the reasons behind people’s actions in order to understand and correct injustices that affect our society.

After completing her Ph.D. at Florida State, Ms. Makhanova will continue her work at another university. She will take the things she has learned and apply them in new research to continue improving and expanding the field of social psychology. Ms. Makhanova will continue to grow from the influences of her mentors like Dr. Plant at FSU and, of course, she will always remain an unconquered Seminole graduate.

Next week meet one of the mentors who inspire and direct Ms. Makhanova’s work, Dr. Ashby Plant. Ms. Makhanova says, “Dr. Plant is wonderful. She inspires me in terms of working on issues about equality and diversity in a scientific way, but also in a way that informs the public.” Check out next week’s blog to read about Dr. Plant and her approach to researching and teaching about social issues at FSU.

– Alison Amann

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