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Jennifer Kubota is a social neuroscientist whose research has examined the neural foundations of racial bias.
Jennifer Kubota is a social neuroscientist whose research has examined the neural foundations of racial bias.

Drivers of racial hatred

Neuroscientist Jennifer Kubota awarded fellowship to study white supremacy

Just as there’s no single reason that leads a person to believe in white supremacy, there’s also no one tool that can be used to study and explain that person’s attitudes and behavior, said University of Delaware social neuroscientist Jennifer Kubota.

“Scholars agree that not one life event (situational factor) or a single personality or psychological characteristic (dispositional factors) defines individuals who engage in white supremacy or who leave white supremacy,” she wrote in a research proposal. To support the research she proposed, Kubota has been awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Senior Fellowship offered through the Ford Foundation and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, allowing her to focus entirely on that work for a full year beginning in September. This award is aimed at increasing the diversity of college and university faculty in the United States, and Kubota’s selection marks the first time it has been given to a neuroscientist.

Kubota, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and of political science and international relations, described her plan to use the time focusing on a new avenue of research examining the drivers of race-based hate, radicalization and deradicalization. She will use an assortment of techniques — including biological measures, behavioral measures, life history interviews and focus groups —  to examine what drives people to become radicalized or de-radicalized about the ideology of white supremacy.

“We want to use neuroscience to peek inside people’s minds and discover what makes them think and behave in certain ways,” she said.

During the fellowship, she will examine drivers of extreme hate toward racial groups with individuals who have not yet joined extremist organizations. This work will serve as a foundation for future collaborative research that will focus on radicalization and deradicalization into the white supremacy movement.

The research will use neuroscience and social science methods to investigate how individuals come to either join or leave such organizations and examine such factors as their response to propaganda. Her collaborative, interdisciplinary approach will seek to identify characteristics of three groups: those not yet engaged in the white supremacy movement, those currently engaged and those who have left the movement.

The research stems from Kubota’s longtime work involving equity in intergroup relations and drivers of social injustice. 

“I think a lot about how we behave with people who are different from us,” she said. “We all have these underlying assumptions about groups, no matter how well intentioned we are, because we all grew up in a certain culture.”

Kubota hopes that her research may provide insights into how to better combat hate and violence. She cited the numerous incidents of racially based violence that have occurred recently in American churches, synagogues and other settings and the reports that, since Sept. 11, 2001, white supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed more people than any other domestic extremists in the U.S.

“It’s become easier in the past 10 years to find people who hold extreme views, as they become more open about it,” Kubota said. “Our question is: When do those views tip over into wanting to be part of a group that shares those views.”

About Jennifer Kubota and the fellowship

Kubota is an assistant professor in UD’s departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Political Science and International Relations and is co-director of the Impression Formation Social Neuroscience Lab.

She received a joint doctoral degree in social psychology and neuroscience from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She then held a postdoctoral fellowship in social neuroscience at New York University, where she worked on projects related to the neural foundations of racial bias.

Her research examines how we form impressions of marginalized individuals or those who are different from us; how those impressions influence our thoughts, feelings and decisions; and how we may intervene to achieve parity or improve interactions. As a social neuroscientist, her research crosses disciplinary boundaries, bridging psychology, neuroscience and decision-making with the goal of understanding real-world social change.

Kubota’s work has been published in various prestigious neuroscience and psychology journals, including Nature Neuroscience, Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Biological Psychology. She has received previous research support from the Ford Foundation, as well as from the Army Research Institute, National Institute on Aging and the National Science Foundation.

The Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs have been administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine since 1979, and the Ford Foundation has invested in fellowships since the early 1960s. These fellowship awards have supported the career development of almost 5,000 outstanding scholars.

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