Category: Race

Dutch study finds minorities are more prone to belief in conspiracies

GettyImages-870287834.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Psychologists have already established that minority groups are particularly likely to endorse conspiracy theories that involve them. For instance, the idea that AIDS was concocted in a lab to plague black people or that birth control is black genocide have been shown to have particular traction within African-American communities. It’s thought this is because members of disadvantaged groups find comfort in explanatory frameworks that appear to account for the various factors that beleaguer them. But new research from VU Amsterdam and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that belonging to a minority identity, in this case being Muslim in the Netherlands or a member of an ethnic minority in that country, doesn’t merely lead to a belief in conspiracy theories related to that specific minority identity, but stokes an appetite for conspiracies in general. 

Continue reading “Dutch study finds minorities are more prone to belief in conspiracies”

Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause

A soldier, pictured in Iraq in 2015, from the Kurdish Peshmerga – one of the groups interviewed in this extraordinary study (John Moore / Getty Images Staff)

By Emma Young

Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in their new paper in Nature Human Behaviour.

Continue reading “Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause”

More intelligent people are quicker to learn (and unlearn) social stereotypes

By Emma Young

Smart people tend to perform better at work, earn more money, be physically healthier, and be less likely to subscribe to authoritarian beliefs. But a new paper reveals that a key aspect of intelligence – a strong “pattern-matching” ability, which helps someone readily learn a language, understand how another person is feeling or spot a stock market trend to exploit – has a darker side: it also makes that person more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes.

Previous studies exploring how a person’s cognitive abilities may affect their attitudes to other people have produced mixed results. But this might be because the questions asked in these studies were too broad.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, David Lick, Adam Alter and Jonathan Freeman at New York University decided to home in on social stereotyping. “Because pattern detection is a core component of human intelligence, people with superior cognitive abilities may be equipped to efficiently learn and use stereotypes about social groups,” they theorised.

Continue reading “More intelligent people are quicker to learn (and unlearn) social stereotypes”

Non-White or female bosses who push diversity are judged negatively by their peers and managers

Business team and teamwork concept. Set of detailed illustration of businesswomen standing in different positions in flat style on white background. Diverse nationalities and dress styles. Vector illustrationBy Alex Fradera

As the first cohort of women leaders began pushing up against the glass ceiling, many hoped it would shatter… but it only cracked. Today fewer than 10 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are led by people from ethnic minority groups and women combined, and although the reasons are manifold, blame has been laid at the feet of the early pioneers themselves.

The accusation is that successful people from underrepresented groups act as gatekeepers, keeping out others to maintain their special status and to identify with the dominant majority (the most famous example being the Queen Bee syndrome where a female boss undermines other women). But new research from the Academy of Management Journal suggests a different and very understandable reason that minority members are cautious to show enthusiasm for increasing diversity – because they know it could spell disaster for their own career if they did.

Continue reading “Non-White or female bosses who push diversity are judged negatively by their peers and managers”

Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?

31586456614_4a06b4b872_kBy Christian Jarrett

When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?

Continue reading “Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?”

Young children don’t categorise mixed-race people the same way adults do

When it comes to race, people increasingly self-identify as belonging to several categories rather than one, reflecting our intermingled world – for example, some sources suggest one in ten British children now grow up in mixed-race households. Yet we still like putting people in neat taxonomies, and to understand this tendency, Steven Roberts and Susan Gelman at the University of Michigan looked at how adults and children approach racial categorisation. Their studies, published recently in Child Development, show that people’s age and own racial background influence how they make sense of mixed race, suggesting these judgments are shaped by a mixture of culture and perception.

Around 400 US participants, who self-identified as either black or white, viewed a series of photos of the faces of black, white and mixed-race girls (pre-testing had confirmed that most people identified the girls as belonging to the racial categories that the researchers intended). The task was to match each photo to one of three comparison characters: a black girl, a white girl, or an unseen mystery girl behind a curtain. Part of the instruction was: “Your job is to tell me if each girl that I show you is the same kind as one of these three girls.”

The first study involved white participants – adults, and children as young as four – and they had little difficulty assigning photos of black or white girls to the appropriate comparison categories. However, they were less ready to consign mixed-race girls to the third option, often using the black category instead, and rarely the white. That is, following previous research, white people saw blackness in models with features and skin tone that owed to a mixed parentage.

In another condition, photographs of the girls’ faces were accompanied by photos of their parents: for example, in the case of the mixed-race girls, one black adult and one white adult. With this information, adults and children aged ten years or older assigned mixed-race girls to the third category with more confidence, but still resorted frequently to the black category and shunned the white one. That this bias persists in the presence of parentage information suggests something at work beyond “looking black”; it suggests many white people (at least in the US) assume that having a black parent means you can’t be white. As the researchers Roberts and Gelman note, this parallels the principle of “hypodescent” found in many pre-emancipation American states, which tended towards awarding mixed descent people a lower social category, found at its most extreme in the “one-drop” (of black blood) rule.

White children younger than ten showed a different pattern when parentage info was provided. Unlike adults, they didn’t start using the third category more – they remained reluctant to assign girls a mystery status when more concrete alternatives were visible. Instead, they allowed the parentage information to steer them towards a white categorisation as frequently as a black one, rejecting hypodescent.

The second study with black participants paralleled the first in fundamental ways: parentage information encouraged participants to choose the third mystery option for the mixed-race girls, and adults were reluctant to see mixed-race girls as white under any circumstances. But crucially, black children saw mixed-race children interchangeably as white or black (i.e. they rejected hypodescent) and this was true whether they were given the girls’ parentage information or not. In fact, and unpredicted by the researchers, the parentage information tipped the youngest black children, between four and six, into hyperdescent: preferring to see mixed-race children as white.

This difference in the black children’s responses compared with the white children’s suggests the white children’s categorising bias may owe to the rareness of black and mixed-race people in their environment, such that any facial features they notice that deviate from the white norm tend to be salient to them. Black children are more exposed to whiteness, so don’t follow the same pattern. This suggestion is supported by demographic data which showed that the more the white children mixed with other white children, the stronger their bias for categorising mixed-race girls as black, and there was a complementary pattern among the black children (more time spent with other black kids was associated with categorising mixed-race girls as black).

To sum up this complex study, increasing maturity encourages the use of less clear-cut categories, but also opens the door to a hypodescent mindset, which in the case of black participants may have a distinctive motivation – Roberts and Gelman suggest it as a form of solidarity that includes mixed-race individuals within the broader black tent. Meanwhile, black children, and younger white children (the latter needing a bit of a nudge in terms of receiving information about a person’s parental heritage) are more even-handed in judging racial identity. It suggests exposure to a range of people makes us less likely to place other people in fixed racial categories, and that children’s assumptions about what makes someone “black” tend to solidify once they reach double digits in age.


Roberts, S., & Gelman, S. (2015). Do Children See in Black and White? Children’s and Adults’ Categorizations of Multiracial Individuals Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12410

further reading
The age when children begin attempting to appear racially colour-blind

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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You don’t have to be well-educated to be an ‘aversive racist’, but it helps

Are you a racist?

Most likely, your answer is no – and perhaps you find the very notion offensive. But according to two Cardiff University psychologists, Kuppens and Spears, many educated people harbor prejudiced attitudes even though they deny it. Their research was published recently in Social Science Research.

Kuppens and Spears analysed data from a large survey of the general US population, the American National Election Studies (ANES) 2008-2009. They focused on over 2,600 individuals of white ethnicity, and investigated the relationship between their level of education and their attitudes towards African-Americans.

In common with many previous studies, Kuppens and Spears found that more educated people were less likely to endorse anti-black views on questionnaires. For example, in response to the questions like: “Why do you think it is that in America today blacks tend to have worse jobs and lower income than whites do? Is it… because whites have more in-born ability to learn?”

However, while the educated participants reported less explicit prejudice, they did not show a corresponding tendency towards less implicit prejudice, as measured using the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

This method originated in cognitive psychology experiments and it has become widely used as a tool for probing people’s ‘unconscious’ attitudes.

As well as education, Kuppens and Spears explored IAT performance and explicit racial attitude measures across other demographics as well. They found that older white Americans reported less explicit prejudice than younger ones, yet they displayed more implicit bias. Women also endorsed less racist views, but were no different to men on the implicit measures.

Psychologists have long known that our ability to accurately perceive and self-report on our own behaviour is imperfect. If these results are anything to go by, being highly educated might not mean that we’re fully informed about our own implicit prejudices. Kuppens and Spears suggest that educated people were more likely to be ‘aversive racists’ – people who reject racism and consider themselves free of prejudice, yet still harbor implicit bias.

The researchers do note, however, that implicit measures like the IAT are open to several interpretations. In particular, they say, just because someone automatically associates a racial group with negative concepts doesn’t mean that they agree with that association. By itself, it only shows that they are familiar with it: ‘Because the nature of these measures prevents the influence of deliberative considerations on the measurement outcome, it is not clear to what extent they reflect attitudes that are endorsed by individuals, or result from information that individuals have been exposed to, but do not necessarily endorse.’

These concerns stem from the nature of the IAT procedure. In this test, the volunteers had to quickly press either a left button or a right button to categorise a target. In some cases the target was a word, and the object was to categorise its meaning as either good (e.g. ‘love’, ‘friend’) or bad (‘hate’, ‘enemy’). In other cases, the target was a picture of either a black or a white person’s face, and the task was to categorise their race.

The principle behind the IAT is that if someone mentally associates two concepts – say ‘black’ and ‘bad’ – they will find the task easier when they’re asked to use the same button to indicate these two concepts. Someone for whom these concepts are linked will tend to press the button faster, when the buttons match, as opposed to when they’re asked to use the opposite arrangement (e.g. same key for ‘black’ and ‘good’).

See also: a recently published study reported on an international contest to develop the best way to eliminate implicit racial bias on the IAT (paper, covered by the Neurocritic blog).


Kuppens T, & Spears R (2014). You don’t have to be well-educated to be an aversive racist, but it helps. Social science research, 45, 211-23 PMID: 24576637

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Neuroskeptic, a British neuroscientist who blogs for Discover Magazine.

Race and foul judgments in football – it’s not black and white

Racism continues to cast its ugly shadow over football. As the European Football Championships kick-off today, the British government has advised fans of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent to “take extra care” when in Ukraine, host nation with Poland. Meanwhile, England defender and ex-captain John Terry awaits his trial for alleged racism. Against this background, a team of Swiss psychologists has just published a preliminary investigation into the potential effect of racial prejudice on fans’, players’ and referees’ judgements about the severity of fouls by Black and White players.

Pascal Gygax and his colleagues presented 43 White football players, 17 White referees and 22 White football fans with 64 challenge sequences created with the Xbox 360 console game Fifa 2005. Each sequence featured one player tackling another, and the clips had been rated by independent judges as ambiguous as regards the legality of the challenge. Players in the clips were White or Black and wore either green or white shirts. After watching each clip (between one and two minutes in length), the participants had to say whether a foul had been committed, and if so, rate its severity.

Based on previous evidence of racial prejudice towards Black athletes, the researchers anticipated that challenges by Black players would be judged harshly, particularly if they were challenges against a White player. Although the results did uncover evidence that race affects people’s judgements of fouls, the pattern of results was complicated.

There were signs the participants were sensitive to the risk of appearing biased, in that they were less likely to judge a foul had occurred whenever a sequence involved two players of different skin colour. Referees specifically were less likely to judge that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player. Paradoxically, participants overall were quicker to decide that a foul had occurred when a challenge was by a Black player, possibly because they harboured implicit expectations that Black players will be more likely to commit fouls.

When it came to the severity ratings, there was evidence for bias against White players – fouls by them were always judged as more serious, perhaps a consequence of compensatory efforts by the participants to appear non-biased. On the other hand, challenges on Black players were rated as less severe than challenges on White players, perhaps indicative of prejudice by the White participants.

“In essence,” the researchers explained, “participants have conflicting sources of information which result in differential treatments of White and Black players, at times discriminatory to Black players, and at times to White players.” An alternative, more pessimistic explanation put forward by Gygax and his team is that the participants expected Black players to be more aggressive and so raised the threshold for what they considered to be severe when judging their challenges.

The researchers acknowledged the limitations of their study – most obviously that they’d relied on video game clips rather than real-life footage. However, they said they’d uncovered evidence of discrimination in the judgement of football challenges, and that crucially, “those were not always against Black players: thus, differentiation judgments in soccer based on skin colour may not be a black or white judgment.”



Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Could lessons in genetic variation help reduce racial prejudice?

Richard Dawkins called it “the curse of the discontinuous mind” – our tendency to lump things into discrete categories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our perception of ethnic races, which we tend to see as reflecting absolute dividing lines in the human population. Do mistaken folk beliefs about genetics play a role in this? A new study by Jason Plaks and his team suggests so. What’s more, their findings have interesting implications for an anti-prejudice intervention based around genetics lessons.

The background to this work is that people often mistakenly assume that superficial ethnic characteristics are a reliable sign of significant genetic difference. In fact, each of us is about 99.9 per cent similar genetically to the next person. And the genetic variability that does exist in the human race tends to be greater within ethnic groups than between them.

Plaks and his colleagues devised an ingenious memory test to expose the tendency of their 84 student participants to see black and white races as clear-cut categories (the students were from various ethnic backgrounds, but the majority were white). The stimuli were faces morphed from real photos of black and white people to consist of seven degrees of prototypical blackness and whiteness (including: all black, all white, 50/50, 16.67 per cent black, 16.67 per cent white, 33.33 per cent black and 33.3 per cent white).

These faces appeared in sequence on-screen interspersed with numbers. The participants’ task for each number and each face was to say whether it was the same as the last seen number or face. For people who see ethnic races as distinct categories, the racial profile of the faces ought to have interfered with their memory performance. That’s exactly what was found.

After the task, the participants were asked how much genetic overlap two random people on earth would be expected to have (the average answer was 56 per cent). Those participants who said there would be less overlap tended to be the same ones who were affected by the racial profile of the faces. That is, they were more likely to say mistakenly that the current face was the same as the last face, if the two faces had a similar racial profile. This suggests they were using racial cues to remember the faces. By contrast, participants who believed there is more genetic overlap between strangers tended to be unaffected by the racial profile of the faces. Presumably they used more idiosyncratic features of the faces to remember them by.

If belief in genetic variation is correlated with people’s tendency to categorise faces according to race, then what if people are educated about human genetic variation – might that change their proclivity for prejudice? The next stage of the Plaks’ study suggested so.

Half of 95 participants read a passage of text (adapted from a real American Psychologist article) that correctly stated the 99.9 per cent genetic overlap between random individuals, and drew an analogy between ethnic groups and social clubs. The other half of the participants read a version that said genetic overlap between individuals is low (21.4 per cent) and drew an analogy between ethnic groups and families. Again, the participants were from various ethnic backgrounds, but most were white.

Afterwards the participants had to rate words (e.g. “disgusting”, “delightful”) as either positive or negative as fast as they could. A crucial twist was that the words were preceded by a face prime with varying degrees of racial black or whiteness. For the participants who read the low genetic overlap text, the racial profile of the face prime made a difference – they were quicker to categorise negative words after a face that was 25 per cent black or more. By contrast, the racial profile of the face primes made no difference to the performance of the participants who read the text explaining the high genetic overlap between humans. In other words, being educated about the genetic overlap between humans seemed to reduce participants’ sensitivity to, and discrete categorisation of, racial colour, thereby reducing their implicit prejudice in the word recognition task.

Plaks and his colleagues said this result suggests people’s beliefs about genetic variation are malleable and could therefore be a useful target for anti-prejudice interventions. “People without a strong motivation for prejudice – and even those with professed egalitarian ideals – frequently display signs of racial stereotyping,” the researchers concluded. “We suggest that people with egalitarian ideals may still exhibit stereotyping at least partly because they harbour particular assumptions about genetic variation.”

ResearchBlogging.orgPlaks, J., Malahy, L., Sedlins, M., and Shoda, Y. (2011). Folk Beliefs About Human Genetic Variation Predict Discrete Versus Continuous Racial Categorization and Evaluative Bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611408118

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

How Obama could be bad for racial equality

America may have a Black president, but the country’s racial inequalities, in relation to education, health, incarceration, and wealth, remain rife. In two new studies, psychologists have documented effects that suggest the election of President Obama could, ironically, exacerbate this racial inequality rather than help eradicate it.

Daniel Effron and colleagues presented dozens of predominantly White undergrad students with one of two scenarios that would reveal their favouritism towards White people: one was a hiring decision, the other related to the allocation of funds to communities. Crucially, the students were asked to make their choices about the hiring or funding either before or after they had declared whether they planned to vote for Barack Obama, in what was then the upcoming Presidential election.

Students who declared their intention to vote for Obama before making the hiring/funding decisions subsequently showed more favouritism towards White people than did students who made their decisions first. A third study showed this effect was particularly apparent among more racially prejudiced students.

“Our findings raise the possibility that the opportunity to vote for an African-American for President could have reduced some voters’ concerns about appearing prejudiced, thereby ironically increasing the likelihood that they would favour Whites in subsequent decisions,” the researchers said.

In a separate study, Cheryl Kaiser and colleagues compared the support of dozens of predominantly White undergrad students for anti-racist social policies ten days prior to, and one week after, the election of President Obama. They found that support for anti-racist social policies – for example, encouraging diversity in business – was lower after Obama’s election compared with before. The students also stated that America had made more progress towards racial progress, and they expressed more support for meritocracy, when asked after Obama’s election compared with when they were asked before.

“Barack Obama’s presidential victory may have ironic and unintended consequences for remedying racial injustice in the United States,” Kaiser’s team said. “Specifically, construing President Barack Obama’s victory as an achievement in race relations may hinder efforts to eliminate the racial disparities that continue to plague and divide the United States.”

ResearchBlogging.orgKaiser, C., Drury, B., Spalding, K., Cheryan, S., & O’Brien, L. (2009). The ironic consequences of Obama’s election: Decreased support for social justice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 556-559 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.01.006

Effron, D., Cameron, J., & Monin, B. (2009). Endorsing Obama licenses favoring Whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 590-593 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.