Opening Minds with PJ Henry

PJ Henry, Associate Professor of Psychology, NYU Abu Dhabi.

NYUAD Associate Professor of Psychology PJ Henry is challenging preconceived notions about psychology. "Most parts of the world think of Freud and therapy, seeing the field as light and fluffy instead of involving data collection, theory, and research," he said. "Part of my goal here is to disabuse people of these ideas and hammer home that psychology operates under the same methods and ideals as any other science." While part of this takes place in the classroom, Henry is also developing his own research on a cutting-edge new theory that has caught the attention of some of the most important journals in the field of psychology.

Stigma Compensation Theory, as Henry has coined it, has to do with the victims of prejudice. "Those on the receiving end are constantly told on some level that they are not as good as other people. This theory looks at, from a psychological perspective, what strategies people use to manage being told that they are second-class citizens." Henry goes on to explain that while the names and roots of prejudice may differ, the overall message is similar to those on the receiving end.

"[Stigma Compensation Theory] shows that you can capture something fundamental about prejudice and how responses are common across not only different groups and domains, but through history, even. Why should we assume that they are operating on different principles just because there are different groups involved?" Though Henry says that Stigma Compensation Theory is still "in its early stages of development," his articles associated with it have been published in both Political Psychology and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one of the most respected psychology journals.

While Henry blazes trails with his psychology research, he is also hard at work in the classroom, sharing his theory on the psychological and behavioral responses to prejudice and teaching the next generation about the merits of the field. Last semester, Henry taught two courses: Introduction to Psychology and Prejudice. The latter was an interdisciplinary class utilizing texts that, in some cases, were hundreds of years old and from outside the realm of psychology. "Instead of just examining scientific articles, it was incredible for the students to see the common themes and similar language that emerged from reading Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1700s writing about the importance of education for women and then move on to W.E.B. DuBois talking about educating blacks. It was enlightening to catch them talking about similar problems in similar ways and gave clues to how prejudice works."

This semester, Henry is teaching Social Psychology, introducing students to the theories and research on the psychology and behavior of people. He spoke excitedly about the "engaged and extremely eager" students identifying with the topics of the class — love, attraction, persuasion, and the unconscious — adding that this accomplished international student body was one of the main attractions that brought him to NYU Abu Dhabi. "The institution has high ambitions to become one of the top universities in the world. Seeing these students, I think it has a right to shoot that high."