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Naomi Ellemers: ‘Now I have the opportunity to do something truly innovative.'

Naomi Ellemers, Professor of Social Psychology of Organisations, is one of the four winners of the Spinoza Prize for 2010. ‘This is absolutely fantastic – something that as a researcher you hardly dare to dream of!’

An un-Dutch prize

The most remarkable thing about winning this prize is that it is so un-Dutch, comments Ellemers. ‘Normally you first have to make a detailed plan, and carry out preliminary research to prove that it all works just as you say it will before you can acquire funding for your research. This award gives me funding on the basis of my past achievements and the confidence that people have to expend a large chunk of funding on research without first working out all the details of the plans. That’s great, because, as every researcher knows, plans that extend further than the next piece of research offer no guarantee of success. Such plans always have to be adjusted once the first results are in. This prize gives me the opportunity to do something that is truly innovative, and of which I cannot at the moment say with any certainty how it will work. This is unique in the Netherlands.’

Moral values

Naomi Ellemers studies the behaviour of people in groups. Norms and values are at the heart of her research. Norms are about the question of what behaviour we consider acceptable and what behaviour we do not. Values are about ideals, such as: what is important for us in our work, what are our goals, what makes a good employee?

Being part of the group

Ellemers: 'It used to be thought that people wanted to belong to particular groups because it gave them some concrete benefit, such as money or power. But this is apparently not the most important consideration. People want to belong to a group because of the moral values that such a group stands for. It’s important that other people respect our values. If they don’t, we feel threatened in terms of who we are and what we stand for. This is what happens when colleagues think you consider different things important in your work simply because you belong to a different group. For example, because you are the only female in an otherwise all male group.’

Physiological experiments

Physiological experiments carried out by Ellemers demonstrate clearly that people who feel threatened in this way experience physical stress. Over time this can even lead to health problems. Ellemers: ‘We can apply electrodes to a test subject to measure heartbeat and blood pressure differences, and we can measure cortisol by testing saliva. The hormone cortisol indicates the level of stress response experienced in the body. These are all unconscious reactions that people have no control over. We can tell from these tests what a particular situation does to people, even before they themselves are aware of their response.’

Threat or challenge

These tests distinguish between two types of responses to stressful situations. Some people experience such a situation as a threat, others see it is a challenge. We have been able to establish that people who view a situation as threatening perform less well, for example in IQ tests. People who feel challenged perform better. Ellemers: ‘When I explain about our research, HR managers who are concerned with issues relating to diversity seem to find it very interesting.’ Ellemers’ research group is now involved in looking at the circumstances under which people feel threatened, and how you can make sure they feel challenged rather than threatened.

Brain measurements

Using the funds from the Spinoza Prize - 2.5 million euro - Ellemers can now take the next step in her research: looking at what precisely happens in the brain in such a stress situation. ‘We attach electrodes to the subject’s head with which we can measure what activity is instigated in the brain as a reaction to information received by the person. People sometimes tell us, for example, that they take no notice if others respond negatively to them. These measurements allow us to see whether or not that’s the case, or whether they are more affected than they realise.’

Naomi Ellemers

Naomi Ellemers is a highly productive and influential researcher in her field. She carries out research into the effects of status differences between groups, diversity in organisations, and involvement and effort in task groups. She focuses particularly on the importance of social identity for motivation, including work motivation, performance and innovation in work teams. Further important research themes are the importance of social identity for minority groups and discrimination on the employment market.

Ellemers (1963) was appointed at Leiden University in 1999. She obtained her master’s and her PhD at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, obtaining Honours for both. Before her appointment in Leiden she worked at the Vrije Universiteit. In January of this year Ellemers was awarded the first KNAW Merian Prize for women in science. The prize was awarded for her excellent scientific research and her active commitment to equal opportunities for women in academia. In 2008 she received the European Kurt Lewin Award for her work.

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