The Social Perception, Attitudes, Mental Simulation Lab

Topics of Study

(the Detailed Version)


Overview of Research Domains

Our research focuses on “The Big Three” social categories in United States culture: gender, race, and sexual identity. We approach each of these social categories as research domains from the complementary perspectives of self-perception (viz. identity dynamics) and social perception (viz. the perception of these categories by others who are not the self). Though traditionally treated as different topics within social psychology, our lab combines these foci under the “Social Perception” heading that is the first part of our lab name (donating the SP to our lab acronym: SPAMS). (This approach is similar to approaches taken by personality psychologists and thereby illustrates our integrated social-personality approach.)

Adding layer of complexity to the complementary perspectives within our social perception approach, we also focus on attitudes that individuals have regarding the Big Three social categories as defined above. The attitudes approach also features complementary perspectives, focusing on self-directed attitudes (e.g., self-esteem) and other-directed attitudes (e.g., outgroup prejudice, ingroup prejudice). We also study the behavioral component of bias commonly called discrimination, which, importantly, can occur in the absence of overtly negative attitudes. In this way, our lab approaches research from the larger “psychology of evaluation” standpoint, in which we are able to focus on attitudes and discrimination. (This approach donates the A to our lab acronym.)

Our lab merges the two overarching themes of social perception and attitudes into our primary lines of research. Thus, we might be viewed at this point primarily as a SPA lab.

A secondary line of research in our lab is in the realm of mental simulation (donating the MS to our SPAMS lab acronym). In this secondary line of research, we explore people’s “mental time travel” into the past (as counterfactual thinking, counteractual thinking, or retrospection) and into the future (variously called prefactual thinking, forecasting, or prospection). Previous and current projects focus on the cognitive architecture of mental simulation. Our first publication this topic (Malle & Tate, 2006) outlines the general approach. Future projects will connect the dynamics of counterfactual thinking and prospective thinking to the areas of social perception and attitudes that we study in order to explore the ways in which individual approaches to past and future events may or may not correspond with actual or intended behaviors.

One meta-theory that underpins the lab’s approach to psychological science is what we have called a stepwise view of evolutionary psychology, which can be contrasted with the assumptions of a number of existing evolutionary psychology theories. The articulations of our stepwise approach, its differences from sexual strategies theory, and its broader assumptions can be found in a brief explanation (Tate & Ledbetter, 2010) and a longer explication (Tate, 2013a). Future publications will detail and seek to demonstrate how generalized cognitive processes from genetic endowments intersect with or supersede experiential, psychosocial, and cultural factors when contributing to how social perceivers experience the Big Three social categories. Importantly, we seek to identify the separate and joint influences of genetics and developmental processes (the name for the larger class of experiential, psycho-social, and cultural processes) to social and personality psychology, which differentiates our approach to evolutionary psychology from most other accounts. Also, our evolutionary approach is completely compatible with feminist approaches to gender (see Tate, 2013a, pp. 500-502, and Tate 2013b, for details).

It is also worth noting that a key feature of our lab’s approach to psychological science is to be as inclusive in our thinking and data collection as possible from the outset. Consequently, we approach each of the Big Three social categories from the most inclusive perspective possible. Our lab believes that starting from an inclusive place of theory and research is a hallmark of any useful scientific investigation. The history of life sciences is rife with examples of non-inclusive approaches to social phenomena, which tend to lead to under-developed understandings and roadblocks to scientific progress.

To make this inclusive approach concrete for the Big Three social categories that we study, we start from the assumption that all experiences of gender identity (cisgender and transgender spectrum [or trans*]) are valid; that all experiences of sexual identity are valid; and that all experiences of racial self-identification are valid. This commitment to inclusiveness from the outset translates into a true integration of diverse experiences in how our lab develops our theorizing and research studies. This commitment to integrating diversity sometimes leads to novel approaches to sexuality, gender experience, and racial cognition that might be at odds with the popular explanations for these social categories in psychological science and elsewhere.

The Importance of Philosophy of Science and Measurement

Charlotte Tate’s supporting area of doctoral training at the University of Oregon was in philosophy of science. Dr. Tate is therefore interested in making the philosophical assumptions supporting the conduct of psychological science plain and clear in her investigations. Accordingly, in addition to publications that concern empirical evaluations of predictions and theories using collected data and statistics, our lab also publishes what the field refers to as “review papers” that seek to further articulate the assumptions and biases that importantly, but often tacitly, underpin approaches to the Big Three social categories in psychological science. Notably, we often seek to publish these review papers ahead of doing empirical research in order to make clear the arc of our own research programs and allow others to participate in these approaches as well.  

In terms of empirical research, our lab takes the abductive reasoning approach to conducting scientific inquiry, which was first articulated by philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce. Abductive reasoning can be contrasted with the popular hypothetico-deductive reasoning model in psychological science. Unlike the popular model of psychological science in which predictions are deduced from a relative complete theoretical model of that phenomenon, abductive logic requires scientists to reason to the best conclusions given the field’s current understanding (deductions) and the data at hand (inductions) (Peirce, 1992). Concretely, researchers are able to sensibly predict some aspects of the phenomenon under empirical investigation but not others ahead of (or a priori to) conducting the study. The aspects that cannot be predicted or deduced given current scientific understanding are instead evaluated as relationships of interest in the results (see Tate, 2011, p. 647, for a more detailed description). These empirically derived patterns can then form candidate replications and be used to create research theories that will eventually provide some deductive expectations about data patterns. The iterative interplay of induction and deduction is a cornerstone of the abductive approach.

Stemming from her interest in philosophy of science, Dr. Tate endeavors to create the most precise measurement tools for collected data in psychological science given the field's current capabilities. As a result, much of the lab’s current focus is on developing more precise tools for the measurement of the Big Three social categories. These tools take the forms of demographic measures, as well as attitudes scales. The first of these more precise measurement tools is presented in Tate, Ledbetter, and Youssef (2013), which details how to assess gender profiles to be inclusive of both trans* and cisgender experiences. Measures for sexual identity and racial categorization are in the works. Dr. Tate is also interested in using the most appropriate statistical methods for the data structures of psychological research. To this end, she emphasizes the importance of the connection between statistical inference and data structures for her own and other's work in various publications.

The SPAMS Lab Approach to “Gender” as a Research Domain

Our lab approaches "gender" as having distinguishable dimensions or facets that can be the focus of study for any empirical investigation. We argue that together these facets constitute a bundle of phenomena that are separately and in any combination called "gender." The "bundle" term also suggests that the facets are not necessarily ordered or connected in a meaningful way; instead, they are all simply part of the personal and social understanding of "gender." At the broadest level of abstraction, these facets are: (a) birth-assigned category, (b) self-assigned identity [also called current gender identity], (c) gender stereotype adherence or endorsement, (d) the social presentation of gender (including visual appearance and name use), and (e) gender evaluations (which refer to all classes of self-other comparisons). The gender evaluations facet can be further decomposed into in-group comparisons (e.g., perceived gender typicality with other members of one’s gender group) as well as out-group comparisons (e.g., such as sexism or transphobia). Our lab focuses on developing new methods of assessing these facets as well as improving existing ones from other researchers. A representative publication in this domain is Tate, Ledbetter, and Youssef (2013), in which our lab introduces a new way of assessing current gender identity and birth-assigned gender category to create more precision in the identification of cisgender and trans* experiences—what we call the two-question method of assessing gender identity (2QAGI).

The SPAMS Lab Approach to “Sexual Identity” as a Research Domain

Like a number of psychological research labs, our lab approaches sexual identity as a multi-dimensional construct. In fact, we use the term “sexual identity” in place of the more popular term “sexual orientation” because we believe sexual identity captures more of the psychology involved in the experience of this phenomenon. Sexual orientation, in contrast, seems to captures only two of the dimensions in which we are interested. The major dimensions of sexual identity, as our lab construes them, can be described as the ABCs of sexual identity: (a) attraction sets, (b) behavioral tendencies regarding sexual contact with others, and (c) categorization into a sexual orientation category. (“Sexual orientation” as currently conceived may only capture the (a) and the (b) listed above.) From this construal, we can examine self-perceptions of the ABCs and well as how the ABCs are perceived for social targets. Similarly, we are able to approach self-directed and other-directed attitudes along the ABCs of sexual identity.

As noted above, our lab takes an inclusive approach to sexual identity. In practical terms, we are interested in the widest variety of heterosexual and non-heterosexual identities, the latter of which we collectively term queer. Self-categorizations of these queer identities include (but are not limited to) lesbians/dykes, gay men, bisexual women, bisexual men, asexual individuals, pansexual individuals, and queer individuals. We are also interested in the range of heterosexual identities that might include self-categorizations of heterosexual women, heterosexual men, and heteroflexible individuals. We are currently evaluating the best assessment tools for asking about the dimensions of sexual identity to capture the most data about the self-categorizations. 

Current projects in the lab focus on a variety of topics, including: the locus of sexual attraction for short-term and long term relationships; how people manage minority sexual identities in terms of inhibiting or not inhibiting displays of their sexual identity; and, heterosexual attitudes toward specific queer identities, with a focus on identifying the foundations for attitude change.

The SPAMS Lab Approach to “Race” as a Research Domain

Our lab approaches the construct of RACE as a social-cognitive-cultural phenomenon that is not appropriately considered as a valid biological construct or taxonomy system. Our use of small caps on the term itself is an explicit reminder of this approach—one that is purely psychological in focus. The full reasoning behind this stance is explicated in Tate and Audette (2001) and briefly summarized and reiterated in Tate (2008). Of course, our lab recognizes that social perceivers in the United States and elsewhere may in fact believe (to different degrees) that racial categories are somehow biological. This belief can referred to as a folk biology of racial categories, and we therefore approach racial cognition as being comprised of distinguishable folk theories of the concept—each emphasizing a different piece of a non-scientific understanding of biology as important to a perceiver’s racial classification system. Our approach to racial cognition is completely consistent with the social construction approach of sociologist Dr. Peter L. Berger (1963), in which social information is represented at individual level, and this individual-level representation allows for variability across social perceivers.

Our current research regarding this social category aims to understand how racial cognition works at the level of self-directed and other-directed social perception, and self-directed and other-directed attitudes. An excellent general introduction to the future attitudes work of the lab is presented in Clark and Tate (2008).

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This page was updated on January 15, 2014.


Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. New York: Doubleday.

Peirce, C. S. (1992). Reasoning and the logic of things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.