Meet the Researcher - Kathryn Gustafson

Breakout Room: 22

KathrynGustafson_HeadShotResearcher Name: Kathryn Gustafson
Title of Research: Empathy Building: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Virtual Reality Intervention to Improve Community-Police Relationships
Division Representing: Psychology
Institution: Marquette University
Institution Location: Wisconsin
Home State: Wisconsin
District Number: 4
Advisor/Mentor: Amelia Zurcher, Nakia Gordon
Funding Source: Marquette University Honors Program

Research Experience:  
Kate Gustafson is a senior honors student at Marquette University (MU). Once admitted to MU, she was invited and accepted to the MU4Gold scholar program, which is a program within the MU Honors Program that seeks to involve students in research beginning their first year. This program allowed her to become a research assistant in the Inquiries in Affective Science lab in her freshman year. In addition to the IAS lab, Kate joined the Resilience and Relationships lab at Marquette her junior year as she further realized her love for psychology research. This extensive research experience resulted in her acceptance into the disciplinary honors in Psychology program in which she is currently working on an honors thesis. Not only does Kate engage in psychology research, but she also serves as a member of the Honors Action Research Team at Marquette, which has been developing and revising the outcomes of the honors program. Further, Kate is the current president of Marquette's chapter of Psi Chi, a national psychology honors society. She is also a member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. She has served as a host for perspective students at MU and as a peer mentor for incoming honors students. In her free time, Kate volunteers at Summit Mentoring, which is a Milwaukee-based program that tutors and mentors local students. Lastly, to support herself financially, she has been employed in the Digital Scholarship office located within Marquette's library throughout her undergraduate career. 

Presentation Experience: Since Kate has been involved in undergraduate research since her freshman year, she has had the opportunity to present her research at numerous local and regional conferences. As a sophomore, she presented her poster titled Influence of Gender on Willingness to Interact with a Paired-Stranger Following Exposure to Violence at the 9th Annual Marquette University Diversity in Psychology Conference. She was awarded second place in the poster session; competing with Graduate students for that honor. Kate has also presented her research at the Marquette University Honors Research Symposium each of the past three years, with her projects growing in scope and complexity. In addition to these presentations, Kate has been granted two summer research stipends through the university's honors program to continue her research during the summer months. Her latest summer was spent working on an honors project titled A Journey Through the System: Police Discretion in the Criminal Justice Process, which was presented virtually at this year's Honors Research Symposium. As she became more adept at her research questions and began to work more independently, Kate began applying to and presenting at regional conferences. She was an author on the poster titled Police Brutality Followed by Intergroup Interactions: Levels of Emotional Engagement, presented at the Midwest Psychology Association Conference in Chicago, Illinois. In total, she has presented six posters, five of which were first author posters. She is now looking forward to presenting her latest work at this year's Midwest Psychological Association Conference in April.   

Significance of Research:       
Racial disparities in policing have created a culture of mistrust between police officers and communities of color. This mistrust has worsened in recent years as tensions between community and police continue to rise. This study sought to employ virtual reality (VR) technology as a tool to improve intergroup relations between police officers and their communities. The VR tool was designed to encourage perspective-taking, the active consideration of others' mental states and subjective experiences, which has been shown to elicit empathy, decrease implicit biases, and improve relationships among intergroup members. Two techniques were used to induce perspective-taking - viewing the scenario from two different vantage points and presenting counterstereotypical information. To that end, participants (58 police officers, PO; 42 community members, CM) watched a 360-degree live action scenario that depicted a police-community member interaction in which all main characters were Black. After hearing counterstereotypical information from the community member, both PO and CM showed increased empathy for that character; however, empathy for the police officer was not affected by perspective taking. Both groups also showed a reduction in implicit racial bias for white faces after experiencing the VR tool. Finally, empathy for the community member predicted desire to engage in peace circles and crisis intervention training in PO. These data suggest that empathy for an out-group member can be generated through an intimate understanding of that person's background. Further, empathy may generalize to the entire out-group as evidenced by PO reduced implicit bias and desire to engage with the community. 

Uniqueness of Research: 
This study serves to highlight the importance of emotion and empathy in navigating intergroup tensions. Increased understanding of outgroup members may act as a unifying force between groups. Additionally, this study's use of virtual reality presents a unique and innovative approach to reducing police officers' implicit biases that could be utilized in police departments throughout the country.