By Justin Richards, University of Delaware junior and intern for the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication
FEBRUARY 10, 2020—"I was the first grandchild in my whole family. My grandfather was a lawyer and it was just assumed that I was just going to be the next lawyer in the family." The experience of having high expectations and being in new environments is not something new for Joanne Miller.
The political scientist joined the University of Delaware in January 2019 as an associate professor for the Political Science and International Relations Department as well as Psychology and Brain Sciences. She is also an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Political Communication. After 17 years at the University of Minnesota, Miller accepted a new professional challenge to develop a political psychology program at UD. "It's exciting to come someplace new and build something from scratch," she said.
Miller double-majored in psychology and political science at the University of Richmond. As an undergraduate, she had the "awe-inspiring experience" of two internships in Washington, D.C., at former Senator Arlen Specter's office and the State Department. "The work I was doing as an intern was nothing, but just being around the office and talking to legislative assistants, and just soaking up the environment. The same thing with the State Department, just again being in the environment."
She interned with the State Department during the start of the First Gulf War. "The one thing I learned by talking to diplomats who are stationed in the U.S. before their next overseas assignment, was that's a really difficult life in a sense you could be posted around the world." Miller decided that a career in the diplomatic corps wasn't for her because it would require a lot of dedication and not much of an opportunity for a family.
Instead, she pursued a Ph.D. in social psychology at The Ohio State University. "I started realizing the research questions that I was interested in were really political science research questions. I realized [that] psychology could help answer questions because a lot of basic theories in psychology are about attitudes, persuasion, about how people's attitudes translate into behavior."
Miller knew that she wanted to teach in the classroom instead of working in a non-governmental organization or polling firm. "I wanted to be in an environment where I could teach because I wanted to feel like I could have the same impact on my students as I was lucky enough to have as an undergrad. The classroom experience is just fun."
Miller currently teaches a class on conspiracy theories, in which student interest has "kind of blown up." She likes how engaged students are and how they apply what they see on social media to the course. "It keeps me on my toes because there is new stuff all the time."
There is a misconception that those who believe in conspiracy theories have a lack of political knowledge, said Miller. Conspiracy theorists instead tend to be more educated partisans who are in fact "more equipped in some sense to fool themselves—that fooling themselves makes them feel better." Having studied conspiracy theories under both Democratic and Republican administrations, she observed that partisan beliefs are a common thread among conspiracy theorists. It mattered that the party out of power felt more conspiratorial in the context of political events. The current political context is difficult to examine. "It is tricky right now with President Trump, who tends to be more conspiratorial and more likely to throw out conspiracy theories now—and to talk about them. Republicans and Democrats are probably equally conspiratorial."
To learn more about Miller, visit https://www.poscir.udel.edu/people/faculty/MillerJ?uid=MillerJ&Name=Dr.%20Joanne%20Miller. She also tweets regularly @PoliPsyProf.