How do we conceptualize social groups and how do our concepts guide how we perceive and evaluate individuals? Broadly, my research centers around themes of group-based boundaries and hierarchies, among both children and adults.

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Academic Appointments

Honors & Awards

  • Research Fellowship, Ford Foundation (2013)
  • Research Fellowship, National Science Foundation (2013)

Professional Education

  • AA, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Liberal Arts (2009)
  • BS, New York University, Applied Psychology (2012)
  • MS, University of Michigan, Psychology (2014)
  • PhD, University of Michigan, Psychology (2017)

2019-20 Courses

All Publications

  • So It Is, So It Shall Be: Group Regularities License Children's Prescriptive Judgments. Cognitive science Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A., Ho, A. K. 2017; 41: 576-600


    When do descriptive regularities (what characteristics individuals have) become prescriptive norms (what characteristics individuals should have)? We examined children's (4-13 years) and adults' use of group regularities to make prescriptive judgments, employing novel groups (Hibbles and Glerks) that engaged in morally neutral behaviors (e.g., eating different kinds of berries). Participants were introduced to conforming or non-conforming individuals (e.g., a Hibble who ate berries more typical of a Glerk). Children negatively evaluated non-conformity, with negative evaluations declining with age (Study 1). These effects were replicable across competitive and cooperative intergroup contexts (Study 2) and stemmed from reasoning about group regularities rather than reasoning about individual regularities (Study 3). These data provide new insights into children's group concepts and have important implications for understanding the development of stereotyping and norm enforcement.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12443

    View details for PubMedID 27914116

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5395313

  • Making boundaries great again: Essentialism and support for boundary-enhancing initiatives Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Roberts, S. O., Ho, A. K., Rhodes, M., Gelman, S. A. 2017

    View details for DOI 10.1177/014616724801

  • Can White Children Grow Up to Be Black? Children's Reasoning About the Stability of Emotion and Race DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A. 2016; 52 (6): 887-893


    Recent research questions whether children conceptualize race as stable. We examined participants' beliefs about the relative stability of race and emotion, a temporary feature. Participants were White adults and children ages 5-6 and 9-10 (Study 1) and racial minority children ages 5-6 (Study 2). Participants were presented with target children who were happy or angry and Black or White and were asked to indicate which of 2 adults (a race but not emotion match or an emotion but not race match) each child would grow up to be. White adults, White 9- to 10-year-olds, and racial minority 5- to 6-year-olds selected race matches, whereas White 5- to 6-year-olds selected race and emotion matches equally. These data suggest that beliefs about racial stability vary by age and social group. (PsycINFO Database Record

    View details for DOI 10.1037/dev0000132

    View details for Web of Science ID 000377958700005

    View details for PubMedID 27148779

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4882227

  • Do Children See in Black and White? Children's and Adults' Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals CHILD DEVELOPMENT Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A. 2015; 86 (6): 1830-1847


    Categorizations of multiracial individuals provide insight into the development of racial concepts. Children's (4-13 years) and adults', both White (Study 1) and Black (Study 2; N = 387), categorizations of multiracial individuals were examined. White children (unlike Black children) more often categorized multiracial individuals as Black than as White in the absence of parentage information. White and Black adults (unlike children) more often categorized multiracial individuals as Black than as White, even when knowing the individuals' parentage. Children's rates of in-group contact predicted their categorizations. These data suggest that a tendency to categorize multiracial individuals as Black relative to White emerges early in development and results from perceptual biases in White children but ideological motives in White and Black adults.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cdev.12410

    View details for Web of Science ID 000363903400012

    View details for PubMedID 26315349

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4626305

  • How deep do we dig? Formal explanations as placeholders for inherent explanations COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY Gelman, S. A., Cimpian, A., Roberts, S. O. 2018; 106: 43–59


    Formal explanations (e.g., "Mittens has whiskers because she's a cat") pose an intriguing puzzle in human cognition: they seem like little more than tautologies, yet they are surprisingly commonplace and natural-sounding. To resolve this puzzle, we hypothesized that formal explanations constitute an implicit appeal to a category's inherent features rather than simply to the category itself (as their explicit content would suggest); the latter is just a placeholder. We conducted a series of eight experiments with 951 participants that supported four predictions that followed from this hypothesis: First, formal explanations-though natural-sounding-were not particularly satisfying. Second, for natural kinds, formal explanations were less satisfying than inherent explanations (specifically, ones that appealed to a natural kind's causally powerful "essence"). Third, participants viewed essence-related inherent explanations as more specific versions of the ideas expressed by formal explanations, which were viewed as more general placeholders. Fourth, and finally, formal explanations tended to serve as placeholders for explanations that appealed to inherent features more so than for other types of explanations, such as ones that appealed to external, environmental factors. In addition to supporting our novel claim about the meaning of formal explanations, these data suggest a new way in which explanations do their psychological work: not via their literal content (as assumed by prior work on explanation), but rather via the additional inferences they encourage. We end by discussing the potential heuristic value of formal explanations for causal learning in childhood.

    View details for PubMedID 30189296

  • Group presence, category labels, and generic statements influence children to treat descriptive group regularities as prescriptive JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY Roberts, S. O., Ho, A. K., Gelman, S. A. 2017; 158: 19-31


    Children use descriptive regularities of social groups (what is) to generate prescriptive judgments (what should be). We examined whether this tendency held when the regularities were introduced through group presence, category labels, or generic statements. Children (ages 4-9years, N=203) were randomly assigned to one of four conditions that manipulated how descriptive group regularities were presented: group presence (e.g., "These ones [a group of three individuals] eat this kind of berry"), category labels (e.g., "This [individual] Hibble eats this kind of berry"), generic statements (e.g., [showing an individual] "Hibbles eat this kind of berry"), or control (e.g., "This one [individual] eats this kind of berry"). Then, children saw conforming and non-conforming individuals and were asked to evaluate their behavior. As predicted, children evaluated non-conformity negatively in all conditions except the control condition. Together, these results suggest that minimal perceptual and linguistic cues provoke children to treat social groups as having normative force.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.11.013

    View details for Web of Science ID 000396961500002

    View details for PubMedID 28167383

  • Children's descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency replicates (and varies) cross-culturally: Evidence from China. Journal of experimental child psychology Roberts, S. O., Guo, C., Ho, A. K., Gelman, S. A. 2017


    Research with U.S. samples found that children use descriptive group regularities (characteristics shared by individuals within a group) to generate prescriptive judgments (characteristics that should be shared by individuals within a group). Here, we assessed this descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency in a sample of children (ages 4-13years) and adults (ages 18-40years) from mainland China. Participants were introduced to novel groups (i.e., Hibbles and Glerks) who engaged in contrasting morally neutral behaviors (e.g., listening to different kinds of music) and then to conforming and non-conforming individuals (e.g., a Hibble who listened to music more typical of Glerks). Like U.S. children, Chinese children disapproved of non-conformity and rates of disapproval declined with age. However, compared with U.S. children, younger Chinese children (ages 4-6years) rated non-conformity more disapprovingly, and unlike U.S. adults, Chinese adults rated non-conformity more negatively than conformity. Moreover, compared with U.S. participants, Chinese participants across all age groups appealed more often to norm-based explanations when justifying their disapproval. These data provide a cross-cultural replication of children's descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency but also reveal cross-cultural variation, and they have implications for understanding the mechanisms that underlie stereotyping and normative reasoning.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.018

    View details for PubMedID 28552389

  • Multiracial Children's and Adults' Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals JOURNAL OF COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A. 2017; 18 (1): 1-15
  • Now you see race, now you don’t: Verbal cues influence children’s racial stability judgments Cognitive Development Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A. 2017; 43: 129-141
  • Children's and Adults' Predictions of Black, White, and Multiracial Friendship Patterns JOURNAL OF COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT Roberts, S. O., Williams, A. D., Gelman, S. A. 2017; 18 (2): 189-208
  • My Heart Made Me Do It: Children's Essentialist Beliefs About Heart Transplants. Cognitive science Meyer, M., Gelman, S. A., Roberts, S. O., Leslie, S. 2016


    Psychological essentialism is a folk theory characterized by the belief that a causal internal essence or force gives rise to the common outward behaviors or attributes of a category's members. In two studies, we investigated whether 4- to 7-year-old children evidenced essentialist reasoning about heart transplants by asking them to predict whether trading hearts with an individual would cause them to take on the donor's attributes. Control conditions asked children to consider the effects of trading money with an individual. Results indicated that children reasoned according to essentialism, predicting more transfer of attributes in the transplant condition versus the non-bodily money control. Children also endorsed essentialist transfer of attributes even when they did not believe that a transplant would change the recipient's category membership (e.g., endorsing the idea that a recipient of a pig's heart would act pig-like, but denying that the recipient would become a pig). This finding runs counter to predictions from a strong interpretation of the "minimalist" position, an alternative to essentialism.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12431

    View details for PubMedID 27859571

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5435553

  • Essentialism and Racial Bias Jointly Contribute to the Categorization of Multiracial Individuals PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE Ho, A. K., Roberts, S. O., Gelman, S. A. 2015; 26 (10): 1639-1645


    Categorizations of multiracial individuals provide insight into the psychological mechanisms driving social stratification, but few studies have explored the interplay of cognitive and motivational underpinnings of these categorizations. In the present study, we integrated research on racial essentialism (i.e., the belief that race demarcates unobservable and immutable properties) and negativity bias (i.e., the tendency to weigh negative entities more heavily than positive entities) to explain why people might exhibit biases in the categorization of multiracial individuals. As theorized, racial essentialism, both dispositional (Study 1) and experimentally induced (Study 2), led to the categorization of Black-White multiracial individuals as Black, but only among individuals evaluating Black people more negatively than White people. These findings demonstrate how fundamental cognitive and motivational biases interact to influence the categorization of multiracial individuals.

    View details for DOI 10.1177/0956797615596436

    View details for Web of Science ID 000362995700011

    View details for PubMedID 26330456

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4943871

  • Racial identity and autonomic responses to racial discrimination PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGY Neblett, E. W., Roberts, S. O. 2013; 50 (10): 943-953


    Several studies identify racial identity-the significance and meaning that individuals attribute to race-as a mitigating factor in the association between racial discrimination and adjustment. In this study, we employed a visual imagery paradigm to examine whether racial identity would moderate autonomic responses to blatant and subtle racial discrimination analogues with Black and White perpetrators. We recruited 105 African American young adults from a public, southeastern university in the United States. The personal significance of race as well as personal feelings about African Americans and feelings about how others view African Americans moderated autonomic responses to the vignettes. We use polyvagal theory and a stress, appraisal, and coping framework to interpret our results with an eye toward elucidating the ways in which racial identity may inform individual differences in physiological responses to racial discrimination.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/psyp.12087

    View details for Web of Science ID 000325080100002

    View details for PubMedID 23889076

  • From Parental Involvement to Children's Mathematical Performance: The Role of Mathematics Anxiety EARLY EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT Vukovic, R. K., Roberts, S. O., Wright, L. G. 2013; 24 (4): 446-467