Geva Journal

The Science of SMART PEOPLE

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Geva is excited to present The Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of Smart People, by Lydia Diamond and directed by Summer L. Williams. Smart People will run at Geva Theatre Center from October 5-22, 2017 in the Fielding Stage.

In Smart People, we meet Brian – a white professor of neuroscience out to prove that racial perception is not learned by circumstance, but occurs at a cognitive level. Brian’s work sparks questions in his relationships with fellow academic in psychology Ginny (who works with Asian American women in therapy), longtime friend and surgeon-in-training Jackson, and new friend and actress Valerie – all people of color, who constantly live under the boot of racial bias.

Shannon Tyo as Ginny and Jake Lee Smith as Brian
Folami Williams as Valerie and Bryce Michael Wood as Jackson

Photos by Julia LP Cole

Smart People first premiered at Huntington Theatre Company in 2013, under the direction of the company’s artistic director Peter DuBois. It later had its Off-Broadway premiere at Second Stage Theatre in 2016. The Off-Broadway production stared Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson – of The Affair and Dawson’s Creek fame, Tessa Thompson – star of Dear White People and Creed, and Anne Son – star of cult indie TV show My Generation.

The science discussed in Smart People is based on true research on implicit racial bias. Diamond relied on these studies to create the academic world of her play. Even though this science influenced the creation of the play, Smart People is, like any good play, more of an exploration of relationships than it is about the intricacies of social science.


Here are some of the studies that inspired Lydia Diamond’s Smart People:

1) Stereotype Content Model

According to Dr. Susan T. Fiske, the foremost neuropsychologist in the study of social cognition, stereotypes, and prejudice, “Our own prejudice – and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice if we don’t address it – takes a more subtle, unexamined form. People can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates.” Check out more from Dr. Susan T. Fiske in this widely referenced article here.

Fiske developed the Stereotype Content Model to convey two dimensions in the gauging of a stereotype: warmth and competence.

Various groups will rate differently on this scale based on their social status and productive output. In this form of the model, common individuals/objects of society are categorized into four emotions: pity and disgust registering as low in competence and pride and envy as high.

According to Fiske, in order for humans to judge social groups as in/out-groups, the person has to have active feelings about a particular group. This is why we regard groups of people with “warmth” or by judging their “competence.”

In Fiske’s work on stereotyping, she has applied her Stereotype Content Model to include more members of social groups than the original table allows. By clustering the groups displayed in the table in this way, Fiske argues that the stereotyping endured by each group listed here registers similarly (neurologically speaking) as another group in its cluster.

Lydia Diamond looked at graphs like this when writing the world of neuropsychology in her play.

2) mPFC

Brian in Smart People spends time examining the brain activity of subjects viewing their respective out-groups. Diamond speculates that he would set up his questions based on data like the Stereotype Content Model, and then he would map these responses via a brain scan.

During his studies, Brian would have looked at the mPFC – or the medical Prefrontal Cortex – the area of the brain responsible for registering the emotions elicited by an outside influence. In this image published in Dr. Fiske’s and Dr. Lasana T. Harris’ Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuroimaging Responses to Extreme Out-Groups, one can see where the emotions pride, envy, and pity ignite in the brain. Brian’s images would look something like this:

A=Anterior
R=Right

3) Continuum Model of Impression Formation

Another piece of inspiration in the development of Smart People is the The Continuum Model of Impression Formation created by Fiske and her colleague Steven L. Neuberg. This flowchart shows how first impressions are formed upon a first encounter with another person when individuals automatically group others into social categories.

You will meet characters in Smart People that judge each other quickly – as is often our human nature to do so. Fiske argues that there is a step-by-step process we go through when making these snap-judgments. She has mapped the cause-and-effect of how this process occurs:

While Brian would be looking at the neurological effects of stereotyping, Ginny’s work could require her to reference charts like The Continuum Model of Impression Formation. As both a psychology professor and mental health counselor for Asian-American women, Ginny helps her clients overcome issues of assimilation into American culture.

4) The Implicit Association Test

During the development of Smart People, Diamond read about the work by renowned social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji (of Harvard University) and Tony Greenwald (of University of Washington). In their bestselling book Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald demonstrate their creation: The Implicit Association Test (or IAT). The IAT measures the attitudes and beliefs individuals may be unwilling to report in normal life. The test is presented in an online format and requires users to rapidly categorize two concepts with an attribute, e.g. the concepts of “white person” and “black person” with the attribute “attractive.” Blindspot explores the scientists’ findings through the results of thousands of participants of this test.

 

A screenshot from the Implicit Association Test. To learn more about the test, click here

The test is currently available online through the scientists’ nonprofit Project Implicit.
Take the test and discover just how biased you truly are.


The science featured in Smart People is entirely fictional – but it was inspired by real research that greatly influenced Lydia Diamond’s story. Diamond aimed to write on the landscape of racial bias as it constantly takes on new forms in our society. As she tells Charles Haugland of Huntington Theatre Company in 2013, “I was trying to write a play about race, in real time — at a time when that topic was shifting more than I’d witnessed in my lifetime. Seismic shifts. I began writing the play in 2007, and then the presidential election happened. Watching Obama run and watching the way the climate shifted around him changed the play. I am a person who spent much of her artistic career exploring the social nuances of race. In interviews, people started asking, ‘What do you believe now that we are post-racial?’ So . . . the national landscape around race shifted every five minutes, making the writing of the play a delicious challenge.”

To get tickets for Smart People, click here.

 

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