Dr. Rebecca McHugh, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, had an opportunity this summer to explain her research in visibility management to a wider audience than ever before.
That opportunity came in the form of a TEDx Talk released this summer. McHugh’s talk was one of five selected by Carnegie Mellon University students to be part of the university’s annual TEDxCMU showcase.
TEDx conferences are the localized versions of TED, which defines itself as “a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.” Originally conceived as a conference about technology, entertainment and design, TED now covers all sorts of ground-breaking topics, including psychology.
The hallmark of the conferences are distinctive talks with a simple, conversational style. That distinctive style is no mistake, as McHugh said her live presentation in April required working with students on the university’s TEDx committee to refine her message.
“The students were very good about reining me in,” she said. One of the hallmarks of TED talks is that they are short (less than 12 minutes as a goal) and direct. There’s no room for meandering. “It was a very interesting process.”
For TEDxCMU, Carnegie Mellon students select the speakers as well, and they first contacted McHugh to talk about research she and psychology graduate Darien Talley had been conducting before the pandemic. She and Talley had interviewed sex workers in Nevada.
The COVID-19 pandemic had put a temporary halt to that research, so McHugh told the TED talk student committee about her larger research interest that talking with sex workers was only a part of.
McHugh studies visibility management, which is the process of how people reveal parts of their identities to others, particularly if there is stigma involved.
“Sometimes, those features about ourselves that we don’t necessarily want the whole world to know -- sometimes, it can be risky to share them,” she explained in her talk. “And if there’s a negative stereotype, it might even be dangerous if there’s prejudice or discrimination associated with that stereotype.”
McHugh explained the beginnings of visibility management began with researchers studying individuals in the LGBTQ community and when, how and to whom they choose to reveal their sexual orientation.
“As a Ph.D. student, I was fascinated by this concept, and I was pretty convinced that lots and lots and lots of different people do this, so I wanted to learn more about it,” she said.
Since beginning her research, McHugh has worked with depressed teenagers, the furry community (a fandom of cartoons, animation, puppetry, illustrations and writing that involve animals with human attributes), sex workers, and those who identify as asexual. The last three groups she has studied with the help of her students Anni Frick, Mikayla Brinker and Cody Rupp.
Working with these groups, McHugh has gathered data that confirmed her hunch – that pretty much everyone manages their visibility about something at one time or another.
Each group had some concerns in common with others, but some groups had their own nuanced concerns.
“Some of the furries that we spoke to were very concerned about the other people in their lives finding out about this part of their life,” McHugh said. “They were worried that if other people found out, they might get teased, they might get made fun of, they might even lose friends. Some were even worried that they might get kicked out by their families. So, in order to preserve those relationships, they hid this part of themselves.”
In working with depressed teens, McHugh found that they often hid their symptoms. “Every day they had to make decisions on whether to share their symptoms with the people they loved. They didn’t want to worry their family and friends, so they hid how badly they were doing as a way of protecting those they loved,” she said.
Keeping these secrets can prevent people from feeling the emotional closeness that is a basic human need, McHugh explained.
“It can be really, really scary to share this information,” she said, explaining that people will often “test the waters”, for example by bringing up something in the news or a television character with the same secret they have to see how loved ones react. She said that people will do this multiple times and that it’s something to watch for if you think someone you love might want to tell you something.
“We will all end up on both sides of this coin,” she said.
To watch her entire TEDx Talk, visit her profile on the Pitt-Bradford website, upb.pitt.edu/rebeccamchugh.