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University of Connecticut Intergroup Relations Rob Foels, Ph.D.




Research Programs


Editor, Teaching Section, Psychology of Women Quarterly

Foels Research Program

I am an experimental social psychologist with core interests in gender and ethnic prejudice, and understanding how group inequalities are maintained. My research has always examined how social cognitive and social identity processes help to determine negative outcomes for different social groups. More recently I have added a focus on what role social power and cultural belief systems (ideologies) have in maintaining group inequalities including gender, ethnic, and economic disparities.

My theoretical approach has been shaped by social identity theory and especially social dominance theory. Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) proposes that our self worth is tied to our social groups and their status in society. Social dominance theory (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) proposes that ideologies help to legitimize social status hierarchies and negative outcomes for ethnic and gender groups. I contextualize my social cognitive and prejudice research within these two theories, integrating cognitive processes with social status and social identity to gain a richer understanding of how existing belief systems and social structure have their negative effects on women and ethnic minorities.

Cognitive Complexity and Prejudice

My social cognitive approach focuses on the complexity of cognitive representations of social groups and the complexity of attributional explanations. This approach moves beyond a social categorization "us vs. them" approach and examines the complexity of the representations about the people within an outgroup. The more complex the outgroup representations or the attributional processes, the less prejudice toward low status groups. 

Most social cognitive research to date has implicitly used ethnic majority perspectives as a baseline. I am pursuing an understanding of the cognitive representations that all ethnic and gender groups hold about other groups. This approach treats social cognitive processes as outcomes of social factors. In several studies my colleagues and I have demonstrated that low status ethnic and gender groups tend to have higher levels of complexity and lower levels of prejudice (Foels & Reid, 2010).

Regardless of group membership, those higher in cognitive complexity are more likely to perceive the harmful effects of subtle racist behaviors, and to label these behaviors as racism (Reid & Foels, 2010). We have experimentally manipulated cognitive complexity and found that participants in the complexity condition described traditional cultures in less derogatory ways (Mullen, Pizzuto, & Foels, 2002) and did not dehumanize traditional cultures (Foels, Jassin, Dasgupta, & Reid, in prep). 

Group Social Status and Cognition

My research consistently has shown that low status groups have higher levels of cognitive complexity regarding both their ingroups and their outgroups. For example, women are predicted to place more importance on small intimate groups whereas men are predicted to place more importance on larger social groups. However, we have found no such gender differences when it comes to the importance of social identities such as family or friends (Foels & Tomcho, 2005), and instead have found evidence that women have a more complex cognitive representation of their social groups than do men (Foels & Tomcho, 2009; Foels, Tomcho, & Jassin, under review, Rustin & Foels, in press). 

These group differences in cognitive complexity may explain group differences in prejudice and ideology support. Social dominance orientation (SDO) is a preference for group based hierarchies rather than group equality (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Low status groups score lower on SDO than do high status groups. However, we have shown that status group differences in SDO are mediated by attributional complexity in gender (Foels & Reid, 2010) and racial groups (Foels, in prep). Thus the cognitive complexity differences that are related to status in turn help to explain status differences in prejudice.

Feminist and Ethnic Social Identity

In addition to cognitive complexity, I have also examined feminist identity and ethnic identity as explanations of prejudice and ideology endorsement. For example, the support of gender inequalities is positively related to SDO. However, feminist social identity development is negatively related to SDO (Foels & Pappas, 2004). In a follow up set of studies (Foels, in prep), I found that the same is true for ethnic identity. These results suggest that forming a strong social identity in a low status group may lead to a rejection of belief systems that legitimize gender and ethnic inequalities.

Current and Future Research Directions

I have begun to more directly examine the reciprocal relationship between ideological belief systems and cognitive complexity, and how these relate to economic inequalities as well as gender and ethnic prejudice. In recently completed studies we found that manipulating complexity led to more support for Occupy Wall Street and less belief that meritocracy exists. These results suggest that belief systems may have an influence on the complexity of our views of social groups and social outcomes, one of several regarding prejudice and social inequalities that I will be testing as this program of research continues.

References in Program Description

Foels, R. (in prep). Racial and feminist identity reduce consensual beliefs in socially dominated groups.

Foels, R., Jassin, K., Dasgupta, N., & Reid, L. D. (in prep). Cognitive complexity reduces infrahumanization of traditional cultures.

Foels, R., & Pappas, C. J. (2004). Learning and unlearning the myths we are taught: Gender and social dominance orientation. Sex Roles, 50, 743-757.

Foels, R., & Reid, L. D. (2010). Gender differences in social dominance: The role of cognitive complexity. Sex Roles, 62, 684-692.

Foels, R., & Tomcho, T. J. (2005). Gender, interdependent self-construals, and collective self-esteem: Women and men are mostly the same. Self and Identity, 4, 213-225.

Foels, R., & Tomcho, T. J. (2009). Gender differences in interdependent self-construals: It's not the type of group, it's the way you see it. Self and Identity, 8, 396-417.

Foels, R., Tomcho, T. J., & Jassin, K. (under review). Women construe social groups as psychologically close.

Mullen, B., Pizzuto, C., & Foels, R. (2002). Changing intergroup perceptions by changing prevailing mode of cognitive representation: "They look like people." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1333-1343.

Reid, L. D., & Foels, R. (2010). Cognitive complexity and the perception of subtle racism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32, 291-301.

Rustin, B., & Foels, R. (in press). Gender differences in the need to belong: Different cognitive representations of the same social groups. Current Research in Social Psychology.

Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1986). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In S. Worchel & W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 2-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.