Student’s psychology research project focuses on stereotypes in sports © Aug. 13, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Psychology student Hai Nguyen used these and other photographs to gauge people's perceptions of the abilities of athletes based on race.

photos courtesy of Hai NguyenPsychology student Hai Nguyen used these and other photographs to gauge people’s perceptions of the abilities of athletes based on race.

Commonly-held stereotypes suggest that African-American athletes not only have more innate ability than whites, but excel at certain sports such as basketball and football. While white athletes are credited with superiority in sports like tennis and hockey, stereotypes infer they acquired this ability through hard work rather than natural talent.

Hai Nguyen, a Norwich University psychology major, was curious as to whether he could analyze these perceptions by examining people’s reactions to pictures of athletes, and has spent the summer gathering and processing data to do so. It is a project he describes as less about the darker side of racism than about learning to observe and quantify the workings of the mind.

“I like to know how people observe things. People have such different minds,” said Nguyen, a member of Norwich’s military-lifestyle Corps of Cadets, who is also majoring in criminal justice studies. “How does a person look at [another] person if he has no knowledge of that person?”

It is also a project that has a lot to do with learning how to conduct research. As a psychology student, Nguyen is required to perform an active study that forms the basis for a senior thesis. In preparation, he wrestled with an idea of studying sports stereotypes by having actual athletes of different races participate in a test of their abilities. With the help of project mentor Kevin Fleming, a professor of psychology at Norwich, he refined the idea to focus on people’s instinctive perceptions of athletes.

I like to know how people observe things. People have such different minds.

~ Hai Nguyen,
psychology student

Hypothesizing that snap judgments of the talents of athletes would fall along the same lines as stereotypes, he decided to confine the study to white, black and Asian athletes performing in two sports: hockey and basketball. Nguyen collected pictures of athletes, created a test and administered it to more than a hundred students—mostly freshmen who were less likely to figure out what he was testing. He also gathered information on the race and gender of the test subjects.

The challenge was to find a way to provoke an honest response. To do this, Nguyen had to approach the test using professional standards for objectivity in scientific data collection. Participants, unaware of the test’s purpose, were asked to rate a player’s skill as an athlete on a scale of one to 10. They were given just a few seconds to look at each image before scoring. Nguyen cropped out all extraneous information from the photos, and chose pictures of athletes in youth leagues, high school or college, avoiding professionals that test takers might recognize.

“I want to have as much control as I can,” he said. “If they know the player, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I know that guy. He’s great!’”

Finding an appropriate roster of athlete photos was a big challenge, and Fleming said he was impressed by how quickly and effectively Nguyen was able to pull it together. In general, a senior thesis is a tough requirement involving a lot of initiative and effort, he said.

“It’s a very extensive project from start to finish,” said Fleming, adding that psychology is the only major requiring a senior thesis at Norwich, and that very few other colleges give undergraduates a chance to write one. He likens it to a master’s thesis required for completing graduate school.

After creating a methodology, students must have it approved by Norwich’s Ethical Review Board before collecting data. Students must analyze the results using professional techniques, write the thesis and present the results on two or three occasions.

Students often begin formulating their project during a thesis class, when they have a chance to observe the projects of previous seniors, discuss potential topics with their mentor and review the existing literature, he said. Sometimes, students set out to mimic the methods of a previous study, hoping to come up with similar results.

“If they can replicate [results], that’s a good sign,” said Fleming.

Nguyen, however, created an original project that seems to support the hypothesis he started with, according to Fleming.

“He did find, in fact, what he was looking for,” he said.

Nguyen, ’11, did the bulk of his research during the summer of 2010 because he plans to spend the first semester of his senior year in South Korea. His thesis required him to learn to write, organize information, observe and present as a professional, he said. He feels confident that in the future he will bring research skills to his career, rather than basing decisions on opinions. Fleming said many students who complete a thesis gain this assurance.

“They feel like they’ve done something important,” he said. “They really do get a lot out of it.”