How do you accurately quantify something as subjective and controversial as discrimination? What about stigma - a superficial mark imposed upon a prototypical group of individuals? How do you attempt to validate what is seemingly invisible? Dr. Michelle “Mikki” Hebl and her team in the Industrial/Organizational (I/O) department of social psychology at Rice University attempt to answer these questions.

In the world of social psychology, where human interactions are often unpredictable, researchers must get creative to control variables as much as possible while simultaneously mimicking real-life situations. Dr. Hebl integrates both laboratory procedures and field studies that involve standardized materials. “My research is fairly novel,” she notes. Unlike the majority of existing stigma and discrimination research, which depends on self-reported assessments, her studies examine real, non-simulated social interactions. Although her approach seeks to provide more realistic and unbiased settings, “it’s messier,” she adds, laughing about the many trials discarded due to uncontrollable circumstances. That attitude— optimistic, determined, and creative—is held proudly by Dr. Hebl. It is clear that her lab’s overall mission—to reduce discrimination and increase equity—is worth undertaking.

Dr. Hebl and her team focus on a form of behavior they call “interpersonal discrimination,” a type of discrimination that occurs implicitly while still shaping the impressions we form and the decisions we make.1 This kind of bias, rooted in stereotypes and negative social stigma, is far more subtle than some of the more well-known, explicit forms of discrimination. For example, in a field study evaluating bias against homosexual applicants in Texas, Dr. Hebl found that the members of both the experimental and control group, who were wearing hats that said “Gay and Proud” and “Texan and Proud” respectively, did not experience formal bias when entering stores to seek employment. For example, none of the subjects were denied job applications. What she did find, however, was a pattern of interpersonal reactions against the experimental group. Discrete recording devices worn by the subjects revealed a pattern of decreased word count per sentence and shorter interactions for the stigmatized group. Their self-reports further indicated on average a higher perceived negativity and lower perceived employer interest.1 In another study evaluating obesity-related stigma, results showed that obese individuals - in this case subjects wearing obese prosthetic suits - experience similarly negative interactions.2

While many of her studies evaluated biases in seeking employment, Dr. Hebl also explored the presence of interpersonal discrimination against lesser-known groups that experience bias. One surprising finding indicated negative stigmatization against cancer survivors.3 In other studies, the team found patterns relating to stereotypicality; this relatively new phenomena explores the lessened interpersonal discrimination against those who deviate from the stereotypical prototype of their minority group, i.e. a more light-skinned Hispanic male.4 A holistic review of her research reveals a pattern of discrimination against stigmatized groups on an implicit level. Once researchers like Dr. Hebl find these patterns, they can investigate them in the lab by further isolating variables to develop a more refined and widely-applicable conclusion.

What can make more subtle forms of bias so detrimental is the ambiguity surrounding them. When someone discriminates against another in a clear and explicit form, one can easily attribute the behavior to the person’s biases. On the other hand, when this bias is perceived in the form of qualitative behavior, such as shortened conversations and body language, it raises questions regarding the person’s intentions. In these cases, the victim often internalizes the negative treatment, questioning the effect of traits that they cannot control—be it race, sexual orientation, or physical appearance. This degree of uncertainty raises conflict and tension between differing groups, thus potentially hindering progress in today’s increasingly diverse workplaces, schools, and universities.5

Dr. Hebl knew that exploring the presence of this tension between individuals was only the first step. “One of the most exciting aspects of social psychology is that just learning about these things makes you inoculated against them,” she said. Thus emerges the search for practical solutions involving education and reformation of conventional practices in the workplace. Her current work looks at three primary methods: The first is acknowledging biases on an individual level. This strategy involves individuation, or the recognition of one’s own stigma and subsequent compensation for it.6 The second involves implementing organizational methods in the workplace, such as providing support for stigmatized groups and awareness training.7 The third, which has the most transformative potential, is the use of research to support reformation of policies that could protect these individuals.

“I won't rest…until we have equity,” she affirmed when asked about the future of her work. For Dr. Hebl, the ultimate goal is education and change. Human interactions are incredibly complex, unpredictable, and difficult to quantify. But they influence our daily decisions and actions, ultimately impacting how we view ourselves and others. Social psychology research suggests that biases, whether we realize it or not, are involved in the choices we make every day: from whom we decide to speak to whom we decide to work with. Dr. Hebl saw this and decided to do something about it. Her work brings us to the complex source of these disparities and suggests that understanding their foundations can lead to a real, desirable change.


  1. Hebl, M. R.; Foster, J. B.; Mannix, L. M.; Dovidio, J. F. Pers. Soc. Psychol. B. 2002, 28 (6), 815–825.
  2. Hebl, M. R.; Mannix, L. M. Pers. Soc. Psychol. B. 2003, 29 (1), 28–38.
  3. Martinez, L. R.; White, C. D.; Shapiro, J. R.; Hebl, M. R. J. Appl. Psychol. 2016, 101 (1), 122–128.
  4. Hebl, M. R.; Williams, M. J.; Sundermann, J. M.; Kell, H. J.; Davies, P. G. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 2012, 48 (6), 1329–1335.
  5. Szymanski, D. M.; Gupta, A. J. Couns. Psychol. 2009, 56 (2), 300–300.
  6. Singletary, S. L.; Hebl, M. R. J. Appl. Psychol. 2009, 94 (3), 797–805.
  7. Martinez, L. R.; Ruggs, E. N.; Sabat, I. E.; Hebl, M. R.; Binggeli, S. J. Bus. Psychol. 2013, 28 (4), 455–466.