People overestimate their reactions to racism

By Ed Yong | January 8, 2009 2:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchPicture the scene – you sit in a room with two other people, one white and one black, waiting for a psychological test. As the black person leaves to use their mobile phone, they bump the knee of the white person on their way out. While they’re gone, the white person turns to you and says, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that.” How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Angry? Indifferent? And would you want to work with that person later?

800px-Yes_it_does.jpgThis was the scenario that Kerry Kawakami from York University used to try and understand the state of race relations in 21st century America. Kawakami found that people are very bad at predicting their responses to racism. They may claim to shun hypothetical racists or be upset by their actions but when confronted by such people and events in reality, their predictions turn out to be dramatic overestimates of their actual feelings. This discrepancy may help to explain why racism is such a widely condemned but remarkably prevalent part of modern society.

Kawakami recruited 120 volunteers of various races (apart from black), sat each one in a room with two actors – one white, one black – and watched as the white student reacted to having their knee bumped. In some trials, they said nothing; in others, they said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” and in the most extreme cases, they said, “Clumsy nigger.” When the black partner returned, all three were asked to fill in a survey about their current state of mind and the real volunteer was asked to pick one of the other two to help them complete a word task.

Only half of the volunteers – the “experiencer” group – actually sat through these events. The other half – the “forecasters” – were only told about it and asked to put themselves in the shoes of an experiencer. Kawakimi found that their forecasts of their feelings and reactions bore little resemblance to the way the experiencers actually behaved.

Expectedly, forecasters said that they would be very upset by either racist slur. In reality, the experiencers were largely indifferent, and those who heard negative remarks were actually no more distressed than those whose partners hadn’t said anything at all. Likewise, only about 10-20% of the forecasters said that they would choose the white person as their partner over the black one but a much higher 63% of the experiencers actually did so. If anything, they were more likely to pick their white associate if they made a racist slur than if they said nothing.



Kawakami found that forecasters behaved in the same way if they were told that the events they were hearing about were real or fictional. Nor did their predictions become more accurate when they were given a more vivid experience. Kawakami showed another group a video of the scenario shot from the experiencer’s point of view and, as before, they predicted that they would feel more upset than experiencers actually did. And again, while only a minority (17%) said that they would pick the white commenter as their partner as before, the majority of experiencers (73%) actually did so.

Kawakimi’s results suggest that people really are terrible at predicting the extent to which racist comments would upset them and whether they would distance themselves from people who said such comments. The two mistakes are probably related – people think that they would reject racism because they overestimate how much it would really affect them.

Even the word “nigger” – widely regarded as one of the most offensive words in the English language – didn’t bother people that much and didn’t change their likelihood of associating with another person. Acts that ought to make the blood boil were actually met with indifference.

Of course, with any such study, you have to take care to account for other possible explanations for the data and Kawakimi’s group are no exception. It’s possible that the forecasters responded based on what society expects of them, rather than their true inclinations, or that they were embarrassed about appearing as racists in front of researchers. But the experiencers were in the same boat, so social norms are unlikely to account for their different behaviour. Nor is it likely that the experiencers were driven by simple embarrassment or guilt – after all their responses were the same even when their partner had said nothing at all.

So what explains the discrepancy between predictions and reality? For a start, volunteers could have downplayed the comments in reality. Other studies have found that people have a remarkable capacity for repainting bad situations in the best possible light, and that they are largely unaware of how strong this tendency is. Hypothetically, they were incensed by a racist comment, but in the flesh, they could have brushed it aside as a harmless remark or a joke.

Perhaps more straightforwardly, it could be that the volunteers were just largely indifferent to racial issues. When predicting their responses, they deliberated thoughtfully over their responses, allowing society-wide standards to come into play. But when it came down to it, unconscious biases towards black people that they may not have accounted for, or even been aware of, may have steered their actions (do you have any?).

In some ways, the results aren’t that surprising. Time and again, psychological studies have found that people are really bad at predicting their own emotional responses, even to everyday events. We have remarkably little inkling about how upset we would feel in bad situations or what sorts of things would really make us happy (see Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book Stumbling on Happiness for more of this).

Kawakami’s study suggests that the same failure to foresee our future emotions could affect our attitudes to racism. Racism may theoretically carry a heavy stigma, but people are less bothered by it than they would expect, and are loathe to take issue with their fellows for racist actions. And remember that the experiencers in this study were never asked to actually confront the person in question.

The lack of such censure can help to explain why the stigma of racism is so rarely enforced, why acts that ought to be condemned are instead allowed to slide and why racism is such a unfortunate feature of our everyday lives. Even so, being aware of this effect is surely the first step to resisting it.

Reference: K. Kawakami, E. Dunn, F. Karmali, J. F. Dovidio (2009). Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism Science, 323 (5911), 276-278 DOI: 10.1126/science.1164951

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Comments (17)

  1. Becca

    I wonder if the “picking the commenter” part has to do with some subtle perception that the person is being more open or honest. At least you know what to expect?
    Also, how did they measure “distress”? Was it entirely subjective or did they actually monitor heart rate/sweating or something?

  2. Maybe what people think is morally wrong, as implied by the forecaster’s reaction, is different from what gets under their skin. It’s possible that emotional reaction is about a perceived personal threat, rather than what someone thinks is right or wrong. Then I wonder whether strong emotional reactions are needed in order to combat a social problem like racism, or whether it’s enough to be cognitively motivated. And if visceral emotional reactions are necessary, what causes them?

  3. 6EQUJ5

    Not me. I’m the asshole who will confront you, pointedly and loudly, right in front of everyone, for any rude behavior. That’s lost me friends I had no business keeping, but the friends I still have are always on their best behavior.

  4. I wonder how the people actually reacted. I mean, I wonder if anyone actually turned around and said anything to the guy who made the racist comment.

  5. Becca – questionnaire; nothing physiological
    Lilian – nicely phrased point, and I do think that regardless of the reasons behind the difference betwene expectation and reality, the fact that a difference exists at all is interesting in itself.
    Lotus – the paper doesn’t say (although if anyone did call the actor up on it, I would assume that it would have been noted somewhere, at the very least in the Supplementary Info.

  6. LK

    I’m shocked at the results of this study — namely, that the majority of “experiencers” would chose to partner with the racist over the black knee-knocker (I’m a little confused — is it the actor or the “experiencer” who gets their knees knocked?).
    This experiment seems to produce a good deal of emotional reactions. I wonder if this scenario was also tested without race as a factor.
    I also do not understand how the results are measured. They’re self-reported? I could easily imagine people not wanting to get into a conflict with a racist person in such a scenario, but I cannot imagine people not being upset by it, at least inwardly. Perhaps I live in a sheltered world. One in which I would foolishly imagine that the “experiencer” would team up with the racist person in order to spare the black person the experience of having to deal with that.

  7. I wonder when we’ll see brain scans of racism…

  8. Con Kontikos

    What an absurd and nonsensical piece of scientific bunk masquerading as “research”.
    Did anyone research the reactions if there were two black people in the room and the white person bumped the black person’s knee? No.
    Or do we assume that only white people can be and are racist?

  9. Sesame

    I almost want to say … that most people (whites and non-whites) have the concept, whether true or not, that it is a black person that will mess with you like that … “accidentally” bump you. It’s a real “city” things. And maybe they have had the experience. So, although everyone dreads being labeled a “racist” and everyone wants to “confront racism” perhaps deep down inside they agreed with what the person said, if not chiming in.
    I agree with No. 8 … this isn’t really very scientific. If you had two black people and a white person, and the white person got up and bumped the black one, once out of earshot I can hear the bumped one saying “Why do honkies always do that? Are they just clumsy or is this some kind of sumblimnal message?” And the person, unaware it is an experiment, would probably smile and agree.

  10. Butterflywings

    I am not sure this is the best experiment, either.
    Although, uh, *yes* only white people can be racist. The other way around, i.e. remarking if a white person was the bumper, while not polite, is NOT racist.
    I remember, being about 16 and viewing houses with my parents, when the estate agents remarked on how ‘educated’ a black person sounded on the phone, and they ‘didn’t realise he was black’. None of us said anything, although once we left the agent we complained bitterly that they were racist.
    At the time, though, we were probably downplaying it. There is a kind of denial, since we are told racism doesn’t exist any more, it was THOSE evil people and not nice, normal people like US and the people we interact with.
    I think people just don’t like confronting other people. Especially, perhaps, not in experiments (Milgram? Asch?)
    Also, we tend to justify our actions. Hence, not confronting – we would probably tell ourselves it was just a joke or no big deal, to rationalise it, and this would then explain being more likely to choose the white person as the partner (as we are telling ourselves they are NOT a bad person and hence perhaps blame the black person for bumping into them).

  11. Anonymous Rex

    Note that the experiencers were “of various races (apart from black)”. There was no implication that only white people can be racist.
    “Although, uh, *yes* only white people can be racist. The other way around, i.e. remarking if a white person was the bumper, while not polite, is NOT racist.”
    That’s utterly absurd. Racists are racists, regardless of their color.

  12. Jeremy

    I think there are just too many variables here to call it any more than a good observational setup. For instance, I am pretty sure that ANY comment by the actor would increase the chance of the person wanting to partner with them. They become a less unknown quantity. If you were to sit at a bar, and you had two options: Next to a random unknown person, or next to someone who had said a few words to you on the way in, which would you choose?
    Re-run, where commentor will occasionally deliver neutral lines, instead of just no line, and I bet that also correlates with increased partnership desire.
    Secondly, It doesn’t sound like a good control study was done. For instance, shouldn’t you be comparing “negative comment towards another person” vs “negative comment towards another person with racist undertones” to get a baseline, and delta, instead of just jumping straight to the final point? Maybe people’s INCREASE in distress is actually spot on, but that people generally assume more distress towards any kind of rude person.

  13. tj

    Honkies Sesame? Did you just awaken from the 70’s, you jive turkey.

  14. Lotska

    When writing down their mood and feelings after the incident, does the participant do it in front of the two actors? If so, I’d imagine no one would be writing ‘Yes, I feel like shite for having this racist arse next to me, trying to include me in his delusions.’

    Not just because we tend to play small events that could potentially lead to confrontation, but because that might also allow the black actor to know something of what had happened. Also, I wonder if the participant would have felt the incident more strongly if the black actor had made some sign of distress- hurt, offence, anger.

  15. Andy Hughes

    Or more accurately, people lie about their reactions to racism.

  16. Michael Daniluk

    This sounds like one of those things that either has very strange methods or tries to put numbers on abstract concepts.

  17. Musereader

    In a video from the What would you do? Series a woman sat down on the beach with an ipod dock, she left and a thief stole the dock, if she ignored everyone around her nobody did anything about the thief, she only had to smile and say hello to the people around her for action to be taken on her behalf.

    This experiment needs to be run again to determine if it is actually racism because I think this may also have to do with the above effect, the racist person [i]talked[/i] to the participant, the black person didn’t, a bond is formed with the person you talked to. I bet if the black person was friendly with the paticipant before the racial incident, the results would be inverted. Also were the actors swapped at any point? that may cause a difference.


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