What They Learned: Charlotte Scott ’21

The comparative literature and psychology double major researched systems of inequity in her two theses.

Charlotte Scott’s theses both examine the reproduction of social norms, but in two very different ways. Her psychology research examined how white Americans could be encouraged to support racial justice reforms while her comparative literature thesis compared how gender functions in the books Treinta años by Mexican author Carmen Boullosa and Duplex by the American author Kathryn Davis. 

Scott’s psychology research was undertaken alongside fellow majors Christian Yun ’21 and Josh Searle ’21 in Assistant Professor Ryan Lei’s Intersectionality in the Social Mind Lab. Lei encouraged the group to focus their research on the present moment of potential change. 

“We want to believe that the world is a fair and comprehensible place, but that can lead to people in power–often white people–propping up systems of inequality and oppression because they benefit from the status quo,” said Scott. “It can be really difficult to get people to change their minds and move towards supporting change.”

Their research considered how white Americans could be motivated to actively support such change. They found that white participants who read an article on President Biden’s new policies and saw those policies as positive showed more support for reforms like higher minimum wage and affirmative action.

“White Americans’ tendency to justify the current system and their support for progressive policies were affected both by how much change seemed possible in the U.S. and how they felt about potential changes,” said Scott. “In other words, participants tended to support changes that seemed both positive and possible.”

They hope that future scholars will continue their research, looking at systemic change motivation in the context of battling systemic racism. Hopefully, such research could give insights into what encourages support for social change. 

Scott’s comparative literature thesis was a departure from such psychology experiments, but psychological theory still influenced her work. Her thesis compared how Treinta Años and Duplex present women’s experiences and stories, to consider more broadly how gender functions across cultures. 

“I hope my comparative literature thesis provokes some interesting questions about how women writers are portraying societal stories about how women should live their lives,” said Scott. “I think that the psychological concept of master narratives has a lot to offer to current theories about gender and feminism, so I’d like for my work to be an example of fruitful interdisciplinary research. Maybe future academics will look beyond Freud and realize that fields like personality, cultural, and social psychology have a lot to offer to literary studies.”

Scott plans to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature and continue to bring psychological ideas and theories into the field. 

What inspired your psychology thesis?
We were inspired by the work that our advisor, Ryan Lei, was already doing in his lab, but we were also thinking a lot about the events of the summer of 2020. The murder of George Floyd by police and the subsequent protests and conversations forced many white Americans to confront systemic racism and anti-Blackness in the United States for the first time. Hopefully, the realization that systemic racism still plays a huge role in U.S. institutions changed some white Americans’ thinking, but it’s well known in psychology that people are motivated to support the status quo. The urge to keep things as they are is known as system justification motivation, and there’s been a lot of research on it, but much less is known about how individuals shift their beliefs towards embracing change. We wanted to understand how white people could be motivated to support racial justice on an institutional level and were inspired by a specific study (Johnson & Fujita, 2012) to investigate system change motivation.

What was your biggest takeaway from the comparative literature thesis?  
My comparative literature research gave me a lot of insight into the ways that restrictive gender norms and expectations for women’s lives are passed down from generation to generation. In both novels, patriarchal values are upheld in communities of women and girls–– so it isn’t just men enforcing these sexist norms from the outside. The heroines of both my novels struggle to lead their lives in patriarchal communities that force women into roles as wives and mothers before anything else. I also applied a concept from personality psychology to these novels–– the idea of master narratives, which are these culturally determined narratives for people’s lives. Even now, the traditional master narrative for American women states that they should be academically and socially successful and end up in a heterosexual marriage with children. They’re expected to put the needs of the family and the household before their career goals or personal well-being. I learned a lot about how womanhood is performed in acceptable and unacceptable ways, and how those performances fit into a larger master narrative about women’s lives.  

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.