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Bennett Callaghan

College: John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Mind Play: How We Choose Candidates

Bennett Callaghan (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2012), a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, received a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study socioeconomic status and the political process.

“Researchers have found that we all judge people on two dimensions of competence and warmth,” he says. “Warmth is: Can I trust this person? Are they looking out for my best interest? Competence is: Once you establish a person’s intentions, do you believe they will carry them out?

“Our hypothesis is that lower-class people are more likely to take part in the political process when it’s described in terms of warmth, gravitating toward politicians they see as more trustworthy and interested in helping others. We predict that they need to trust politicians more because they feel they are more affected by what people in power decide to do.”

Callaghan has begun his research by giving subjects written passages encouraging political participation. Half emphasized warm concepts (elect people who care about you); half emphasized competence (elect leaders who can get the job done). He found, so far, that higher-status participants preferred the competence message, while those with lower status opted for the warm message.

Illinois assistant professor Michael W. Kraus and Callaghan looked at the behavior of U.S. House members in an article published in January. Republicans, they found, tend to support legislation increasing economic inequality regardless of social status, while the social status of Democrats (measured by wealth, race or gender) factors significantly in their votes.

Callaghan began research as a forensic psychology major at John Jay. With assistant professor Ian Hansen, now at York College, he examined attitudes toward torture, priming study participants with varying statements that underlined the importance of self-interest, abstract moral priorities or following rules; a publication is pending.

Working on a team led by John Jay professor Evan J. Mandery, Callaghan examined data from Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions to gauge the effect of monetary compensation on exonerated prisoners. The 2013 study found that exonerees who received at least $500,000 are significantly less likely to commit crimes than those who received less or no compensation.

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.