Center’s grants seed diverse research in the social sciences

How do perceptions of luck shape views about inequality and redistribution? Could interventions nudge hiring managers to evaluate job candidates blindly, and thus more objectively? Has remote instruction during the pandemic improved student interactions and equity in science labs?

Researchers posing those questions were among more than 20 awarded grants last fall by the Cornell Center for Social Sciences (CCSS). In total, two dozen projects led by scholars spanning 11 colleges and schools – on diverse topics ranging from COVID-19 and policing to clean energy and product design – won seed funding totaling over $240,000.

Funded each fall and spring by the CCSS and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the grants of up to $12,000 seek to support proposals evaluated as strong candidates for external funding, and to jump-start research by junior faculty. Half of the proposals selected this fall are led by assistant professors.

They include Marcel Preuss, assistant professor of economics in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management (Johnson), part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (SC Johnson), who will look at how perceptions of luck – as an opportunity to demonstrate merit, or as a windfall – shape acceptance of wealth inequality. Research has found that people are more tolerant of inequality if they believe it results from personal effort rather than luck, though the two often are intertwined, Preuss notes in a summary of his proposal, “The Dynamics of Luck, Effort and Redistribution.”

“The goal is to understand in which environments people accurately grasp the importance of luck in shaping outcomes,” he wrote, “and what interventions lead to more precise beliefs.”

Sean Fath, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School, will examine strategies for reducing bias through “blind” evaluations, such as a professor removing students’ names from papers before grading them. “Testing Interventions to Encourage Self-Blinding” will experiment with ways to encourage subjects such as hiring managers or teachers to not view potentially biasing information about targets of evaluation, according to the project summary.

In “Equity in Group Work between In-Person and Remote Labs,” Natasha Holmes, the Ann S. Bowers Assistant Professor of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and a researcher in the Cornell Physics Education Research Lab, with postdoctoral research associates Yasemin Kalender and Anna Phillips, will analyze video recordings of introductory physics labs conducted via Zoom with videos taken of in-person labs in the fall of 2019, looking for measures of equity in group work. The research “will contribute to national work seeking to understand representation issues in physics,” the researchers wrote in an abstract, “and probe potential challenges and opportunities with remote instruction.”

Impacts from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines were a prominent theme across the projects winning CCSS support, including:

  • “Exploring and Modeling COVID -19 Vaccination Preferences”: Ricardo Daziano, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, seeks to better understand and model individual decision-making related to the COVID-19 outbreak, focusing on willingness to receive an effective and safe vaccine.
  • “Humanity’s Midlife Crisis: The Existential Deadlock of Liberalism”: Matthew Evangelista, the President White Professor of History and Political Science in the Department of Government (A&S), and Uriel Abulof, an Israel Institute Visiting Professor the Department of Government (A&S), will advance work on a book submitting that humanity is undergoing an existential midlife crisis as “progress towards peace and prosperity increasingly coincides with regress into mass uncertainty and unease, climaxing with the coronavirus crisis.”
  • “Intergenerational Trauma: Flint, COVID-19 and Racial Justice”: Jerel Ezell, assistant professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center (A&S), through surveys and interviews, seeks to “identify and contextualize potential patterns of intergenerational trauma … and develop a new tool to measure intergenerational violence in the context of socially-embedded public health disasters.”
  • “Closing the Gap Between COVID-19 Information and Beliefs”: Ori Heffetz, associate professor of economics (Johnson), will investigate an inconsistency between peoples’ beliefs about future COVID-19 infection case counts and their perceptions of infection risks, drawing upon data from surveys conducted across the country in 2020.
  • “Revising Anti-Vaccination Beliefs During the COVID-19 Global Pandemic”: Tamar Kushnir, associate professor in the Department of Human Development (CHE), and Shaun Nichols, professor in the Sage School of Philosophy (A&S), explore the problem of skepticism toward COVID-19 vaccines, conducting surveys about the beliefs driving skepticism and experimenting with ways to shift those beliefs.
  • “Understanding COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy and Resistance”: Dr. David Scales, assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Sarah Gorman, a New York-based public and mental health expert and author, will analyze online bulletin boards to better understand and characterize hesitancy toward COVID-19 vaccines, including where people obtain information; their reasons for hesitancy; and opportunities to counter anti-vaccination sentiment.
  • “Anthropomorphization of Organizations and Its Consequences”: Simone Tang, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the School of Hotel Administration (SC Johnson), asks if humanizing businesses – framing them as people comprising an organization, rather than an organization composed of people – generates greater empathy when businesses suffer misfortune due to social and economic upheaval, as during the pandemic.
  • “State level COVID-19 Policies: Economics, Equity and Health”: Mildred Warner, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’97, professor of city and regional planning in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), and Xue Zhang, post-doctoral associate in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), will examine the effectiveness of policies states implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections and strategies for reducing health disparities and helping communities recover.
  • “Decoding Tacit Knowledge in Apparel Product Development”: Fatma Baytar, assistant professor in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology (CHE), will explore apparel companies’ pandemic-accelerated trend toward 2D and 3D digital product development that no longer relies on in-person fit sessions.

Additional research projects receiving CCSS grants this fall include:

  • “Building a Modern Policing and Mass Incarceration Archive”: Edward Baptist, professor of history (A&S), will digitize 20th and 21st century stories from newspapers with historically white and Black ownership about police shootings and other violence against African Americans, and 20th century memoirs and autobiographies about incarceration, using the data for textual, demographic, geographic and other analysis.
  • “Linking Public and Private Food Assistance Through Administrative Data”: Chris Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (Dyson); John Hoddinott, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food and Nutrition Economics and Policy in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (CHE/CALS); and William Block, director of the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research, will build a database linking administrative records on public and private food assistance in New York State, for the first time directly tying benefits data on federal programs with usage data from private providers.
  • “Growing Denser and Greener: Lessons from the Emerald City”: John Carruthers, associate professor of city and regional planning (AAP), uses Seattle, Washington, as a living laboratory for a large-scale project studying the relationship between urban planning and urban forestry.
  • “Toward Preventing Racial Bias: The Role of Dialect”: Daniel Casasanto, associate professor of human development and psychology (CHE), and Laura Staum Casasanto, visiting professor in the Department of Human Development (CHE), will investigate how bias related to voice can influence racially based behavior in life-or-death situations, knowledge that could benefit police training.
  • “Interpretable AI and Big Data Analytics with Applications in Finance”: Will Cong, associate professor of finance and Rudd Family Professor of Management (Johnson), will develop AI and machine-learning tools to support research by economists and social scientists, including applications related to portfolio management and corporate governance.
  • “Understanding Fish Consumption and Fishing Effort”: Katie Fiorella, assistant professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, seeks to improve analysis of food system change in aquatic systems by improving the quality of fish consumption and harvest effort data captured from small-scale fisheries, and proposing new metrics to implement.
  • “The Role of Individual Inventors in the Energy Transition”: Todd Gerarden, assistant professor and Susan Henry Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow (Dyson), will analyze patent data to assess how economic incentives influence individual energy inventors, findings that will have implications for climate policy design.
  • “Impacts of Farmer Cooperatives: The Philippines and Colombia”: Miguel Gómez, associate professor of applied economics and management (Dyson), will develop a cross-sectional database to compare the effects of smallholder cooperatives on farmer livelihoods in the Philippines and Colombia.
  • “Training Data for Encoding Social and Political Texts”: William Hobbs, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development (CHE), will search for and catalog surveys archived by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research as a foundation for developing semi-automated tools that can encode and classify public opinion, hate speech and bias, and descriptions of everyday life in text.
  • “Effects of Social Isolation on Vocal Communication”: Katherine Tschida, assistant professor of psychology (A&S), will explore the brain mechanisms through which isolation impacts emotional states and social behavior. Experiments measuring the effects of isolation on rodent social behavior will lay a foundation for studies of neural circuits.
  • “Roles of Positive Emotions in Human-Product Interactions”: Jay Yoon, assistant professor in the Department of Design + Environmental Analysis (CHE), will explore and test the underlying principles by which design evokes positive emotions that influence purchase decisions, usage behavior, product attachment and well-being.
  • “Effect of Gossip on Children’s Well-being and Belonging”: Vivian Zayas, associate professor of psychology (A&S); Tamar Kushnir, associate professor of human development (CHE); and Meltem Yucel, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, will investigate the function of gossip in early childhood and how gossiping, or being the target of gossip, impacts children’s social belonging. The work could help improve bullying interventions.


Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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