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?
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
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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’).
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
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.”
WAGNER-EGGER, P., GYGAX, P., and RIBORDY, F. (2012). RACISM IN SOCCER? PERCEPTION OF CHALLENGES OF BLACK AND WHITE PLAYERS BY WHITE REFEREES, SOCCER PLAYERS, AND FANS. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 114 (1), 275-289 DOI: 10.2466/05.07.17.PMS.114.1.275-289
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.”
Plaks, 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
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.”
Kaiser, 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
Most of us find that people from other races look more similar to each other than people from our own race – a phenomenon dubbed the ‘other race effect’. Sophie Lebrecht and colleagues reasoned that this perceptual bias could feed into people’s implicit, non-conscious racial stereotypes. Now in an exciting new study they’ve shown that training people to distinguish among other-race faces can help reduce implicit racism.
Twenty White participants completed a test of their implicit racism towards African American people. As expected, the participants were quicker at identifying a negative word after presentation of an African American face than they were at identifying a positive word.
Half the students then received training in discriminating among African American faces, after which they re-took the implicit racism test and showed significantly reduced evidence of implicit racism. The other students, who acted as control group, were exposed to as many African American faces in the training period, but received no practice at discriminating among them. On re-testing, their implicit racism was unchanged.
The finding suggests that by improving people’s ability to discriminate among other-race faces, their implicit racial biases can be reduced. This makes intuitive sense. After all, if people from a given race all seem to look alike, then it’s not so hard to believe that they are similar in other ways too. In contrast, learning to see the visible differences between people of another race, makes it harder to lump them altogether in social and cultural ways.
“Our findings have great potential for how we understand and address the real-world consequences of racial stereotyping,” the researchers said.
Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, James W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215
Several embarrassing scenes in the spoof fly-on-the-wall series The Office feature the calamitous manager David Brent trying so hard to appear racially colour blind that he actually ends up causing serious offence. A new study by Evan Apfelbaum and colleagues has identified the age when (White American) children first show this concern to appear unprejudiced, even though doing so leads them to perform less well at a task.
One hundred and one children, predominantly White, half of whom were aged 8 to 9, the other half being aged 9 to 10, participated in a task reminiscent of the board game “Guess Who?” Presented with photos of 40 individuals who varied according to four key dimensions, the children’s task was to find out with as few yes/no questions as possible which one of those individuals’ photos the researcher had in their hand.
Crucially, for half the children, race was one of the key dimensions. Among these children, the younger kids actually outperformed the older ones, and they did so because they were unafraid to ask questions about race. For the other half of the children, coloured stickers replaced race as the fourth identifying dimension, and in this case, as you’d expect, the older children outperformed the younger ones.
“The anomaly in task performance demonstrated in the present study may point to the onset of an important transition in human social development at 10 years of age,” the researchers said, “when internalised social and moral norms begin to regulate behaviour, even when such regulation comes at a cost.”
Evan P. Apfelbaum, Kristin Pauker, Nalini Ambady, Samuel R. Sommers, Michael I. Norton (2008). Learning (not) to talk about race: When older children underperform in social categorization. Developmental Psychology, 44 (5), 1513-1518 DOI: 10.1037/a0012835
“I haven’t got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don’t care if you’re black, brown or yellow – you know, Orientals make very good workers”, David Brent, from the BBC comedy The Office.
Like gender, age, hair colour and other personal attributes, a person’s race can be a useful way of distinguishing them from others, especially if, in conversation, we’re attempting to refer to a person whose name we don’t know. But such is the fear of being labelled a racist, that today many people go out of their way to appear racially colour-blind.
However, this desire to appear oblivious to race can backfire. Michael Norton and colleagues have shown that it not only impairs people’s performance on an identification game, but that it is also associated with appearing unfriendly.
The researchers first paired 30 white participants with either a black or white playing partner (unbeknown to the participants these partners were assistants working for the researchers). The participants had before them 32 photos of people – half were male; half were old, half were young; half were black, half were white and so on. On each turn, the participants had to identify which one of these 32 people their playing partner was currently looking at, by asking as few yes/no questions as possible.
Participants playing with a black partner were far less likely to ask a question about the race of the person in the photograph (64 per cent of trials) than were participants playing with a white partner (93 per cent). Not only did this apparent political correctness impair their performance at the game – they needed to ask more questions to find out who their partner was looking at – the effort to appear colour-blind was also associated with appearing less friendly.
Two independent judges watched silent video recordings of the participants as they played the game (their partners were obscured) and took note of their manner and body language. It turned out that those participants who used the terms ‘Black’ or ‘African American’ less during the game, were rated as more unfriendly by the judges, and tended to make less eye contact with their partner.
“Ironically those Whites who tried hardest to appear colour-blind by avoiding the use of race were the individuals who appeared least friendly when interacting with black partners”, the researchers said.
Norton, M.I., Sommers, S.R., Apfelbaum, E.P., Pura, N. & Ariely, D. (2006). Colour blindness and interracial interaction. Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.