Story by KATE ARTHUR
After his experience as an Eckley scholar, Daniel Maurer will never look at a simple bottle of hand sanitizer the same way again.
It’s not what’s in the clear gel that interests Maurer, but rather how the sensations of seeing, smelling and touching it might influence our judgment of others. The psychology major with an interest in lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) issues is examining whether feelings about cleanliness and sexual orientation can affect our judgment of criminal defendants.
In Maurer’s high school class of about 50 students, LGBT issues weren’t usually discussed. At Wesleyan, he started wondering what caused the dramatic shift in support for gay rights, from fear in the ’80s brought on by the AIDS epidemic to a U.S. president’s endorsement of same-sex unions.
When Amanda Vicary, assistant professor of psychology, encouraged him to find a research project, he pored over literature that combined LGBT issues with criminology. An article on cleanliness and how it can affect someone’s assessment of an outgroup (a social group to which an individual does not identify) intrigued him. Specifically, he wondered whether gay male defendants would be judged more harshly than straight defendants, especially if cleanliness were a factor.
The hand sanitizer “primed the participants for cleanliness,” says Maurer. “That is to say, it made it a salient feature, one that is theorized to affect one’s assessment of an outgroup — in my study, homosexual men.”
Maurer’s research “forms a unique bridge between the domains of criminal justice and psychology,” says Vicary, whose research interests include social influences on crime and aggression. “The results of his study can help provide insight into a variety of areas, including perceptions of homosexuality in the criminal justice system. To the best of my knowledge, to date no one has investigated whether gay defendants tend to be judged more harshly than straight defendants.”
For Maurer’s experiment, volunteers read over details of a bank robbery, including witness and detective statements. Although they never meet the “criminal,” they have to make a judgment of guilt or innocence.
Some volunteers were handed hand sanitizer along with a clipboard and asked to use the sanitizer because of the number of volunteers who had handled the clipboard. What they didn’t know was that this was part of the experiment.
Maurer looked at whether those who used hand sanitizer were more likely to judge gay defendants as guilty.
“In Western culture, cleanliness and purity are associated with virtuous behavior and human sexuality is tied to virtuosity,” he says. “We wanted to see if people were more judgmental of criminals who were perceived as being gay.”
When Maurer’s results are finalized, Vicary hopes they’ll be published in a social psychology journal. The Eckley program “has given him a great opportunity to explore what he will be doing in graduate school,” Vicary adds, “and has helped him become sure of his decision to purse a Ph.D. in social psychology.”
After graduating, Maurer plans to “do a year of humanitarian work in China before I go off to graduate school.” Maurer is looking at programs where he can continue his research in gender studies. He’d like to investigate how prejudice influences politics and may become a social worker, or a college professor.
“My advisor said I had the right idiosyncrasies to be a professor,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoy the world of academia.”
But there’s one thing he’s not so fond of — hand sanitizer. “I don’t use it,” he says with a laugh.