Planting Seeds for Change


When Dr. Ashby Plant first arrived at FSU in 2000, the social psychology program was in its infant stages. The psychology department was seeking a new professor who studied race relations and intergroup bias. Dr. Plant was familiar with Dr. John Brigham and his research on prejudice here and she agreed to come visit. Plant beamed, “I visited and just fell in love. Everyone in the department was so warm. It was just such a welcoming place.”

Today, Dr. Plant teaches undergraduate courses surrounding stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and social issues. She also is the lead researcher in The Plant Lab on campus, a lab that “focuses on prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination as well as individual’s motivations to respond without prejudice, prejudice reduction strategies, and intergroup contact.” The Plant Lab engages six graduate students from around the world, such as Stacey Makhanova from our previous faculty spotlight, as well as around 25 undergraduate students at FSU.

Dr. Plant began her undergraduate career as a math and philosophy major, but by graduation, she had changed to a psychology and English major. “I love psychology because it allows me to explore questions about the world in a scientific and mathematical way. I fell in love with social psychology because it allows you to understand the world as a whole as opposed to only individuals.”

Digging deeper, Plant explained that she hadn’t realized until asked by a colleague that her passion for social psychology really originated from her grandfather. Dr. Plant’s grandfather lived in Little Rock, Arkansas during a time referred to as the Little Rock Crisis. This was the time period when schools were segregated and groups were fighting for desegregation. Dr. Plant’s grandfather was the Episcopal Bishop of Arkansas at the time and fought passionately for desegregation of schools. Plant recalls her grandfather being heavily involved in desegregation as well as overall improvement of interracial relations and was thus regarded as a wonderful and courageous person in the community. This was part of what influenced Plant to regard improving race relations and social justice as noble and valuable work.

Today, Dr. Plant researches and teaches about different issues than those her grandfather was fighting, but they share a common goal of connecting different people and reducing prejudice among groups. I asked Dr. Plant how she manages to teach about such significant but sensitive topics as prejudice, stereotypes, and racism in her classes. “In my class, I try to acknowledge the fact that we are all exposed to biases and stereotypes that are out there… and that doesn’t make us bad. Not making it about blame, but making it about let’s understand why these things happen. Learning where these things come from and why we do them helps people realize it’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way.”

Asking Dr. Plant why she believes teaching and researching about diversity is important on a college campus, she answered, “In part because for some students, they may not have had the opportunity to interact with different people, ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds until they get to a university setting.” She went on to say how most students arriving on campus are curious and eager to learn about and interact with new and different people. Therefore, professors should

support this positive intergroup interaction and create an environment where that is accepted and encouraged.

Dr. Plant’s philosophy of teaching centers around the concept that the classroom should support an encouraging active engagement with the material. Students should be prompted to think about how they would respond in situations and not just be passive consumers. When it comes to her research, Plant aims to look at the world and consider what are the important questions. She looks at history and considers how things have changed over time and then deciphers what those big picture, impactful questions are that need to be looked at in the lab.

One of the big picture questions that Dr. Plant has researched concerns the source of people’s prejudice in social interactions. Dr. Plant considers her 1998 paper, “Internal and External Motivation to Respond Without Prejudice,” her most influential scholarship. In this study, Dr. Plant discovered that if a person is internally motivated to not show prejudice, they will be eager to meet new, different people. An external motivation can originate from the fear of being judged poorly by others if one shows prejudice. If someone is externally motivated to not show prejudice, they will be more likely to avoid people that are different from them so as not to “mess up” and be perceived as prejudiced. Other results show that a person’s predisposition to being prejudiced is influenced by many factors including cognitive processing, emotions, life experience, and likely genetics. Perhaps most importantly, this piece also demonstrates that regardless of one’s natural expression of prejudice, we all have the ability to control and improve our natural tendencies to work toward a more just society. These findings are so influential that they are still used to understand research in psychology labs today.

When asked what impact she hopes to accomplish through her work, Dr. Plant replied that with her teaching, she aims to challenge her students to reflect on their attitudes and encourage them to have more positive intergroup interactions. She hopes to show students that even if they aren’t there yet, reducing bias is something they can work toward. Additionally, Dr. Plant always works to increase critical thinking in her students by showing them how to identify a question and then figure out how they can answer it using science.

Regardless of the positive impacts one makes, no successful professional can go their entire career without facing criticism. For Plant, the majority of criticism comes in two forms. A critic may either believe that these issues cannot be studied scientifically without being influenced by researcher’s bias or they may not see these topics as legitimate problems that need attention.

To combat the first concern, Plant works exceptionally hard to be critical and careful in the way she and her team approach their research so that people are not able to claim that the work was biased in any way. In the second situation, when someone views the research topic as not a big problem in society, Plant relies more on her intuition and team to know that the work is essential. For example, when looking into law enforcement officer’s decisions to shoot, she had people ask why she would study such a small issue. However, they asked this before the numerous unjust police shootings occurred in our country and the issue became extremely prominent.

Another way to combat bias in research is to collaborate with other faculty. Plant says the social psychology department is very collaborative with sharing ideas, methods, and results of research,

and this is valuable in understanding her own work. For example, Dr. Plant works with doctoral candidate Stacey Makhanova in the Plant Lab. Stacey also works with Dr. Jon Maner in his lab where they look at human fundamental motives to protect ourselves and how this can exacerbate sensitivity to outgroup members. This perspective was then brought to the Plant Lab and was able to help when looking at the previously mentioned study of law enforcement officer’s response to threats.

Through and through, Dr. Plant is a people person. People are the basis of her career, her research, the reason she began working at FSU, and why she enjoys continuing to work here. “We have a very collegial, collaborative program that just makes it so much fun. I enjoy it because the people are interesting, fun and we work well together”

The field of social psychology is continuously evolving to include more areas of research and push the boundaries of what can be studied scientifically in the lab. Through the influential work of Dr. Plant and her colleagues, Florida State remains at the cutting edge of this field. We are proud to support Dr. Plant and look forward to learning from her future research.

– Alison Amann

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