Category: Race

Learning to distinguish between other-race faces could help beat racism

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgSophie 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

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

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

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

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

How wishing to appear racially colour-blind can backfire

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.

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