You’re watching a video of a needle piercing an anonymous hand, sinking slowly into the web between the thumb and index finger. You wince as you imagine the pain that the other person must feel, and for good reason. As you watch, you nervous system essentially duplicates the experience, responding as if you were vicariously feeling the pain yourself. This is typical of what happens when people see others in pain, but Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti has found an important exception to the rule. Racial bias can negate this ability to feel the pain of someone from a different ethnic group.
Those of us who have been on the receiving end of racial abuse know all too well that words can hurt. But they’re also the tip of the iceberg. According to a study of popular US television, we’re exposed to the spectre of racial bias on a regular basis, all without a single word being uttered.
When scenes are muted, body language and facial expressions are enough to convey more negative attitudes towards black characters compared to white ones. This bias is so subtle that we’re largely unable to consciously identify it, yet so powerful that it can sway our own predispositions. In some ways, racial bias acts as a contagion and television as one of its vectors.
These nonverbal cues could have many origins. Actors could act slightly more negatively towards black colleagues, even if they have no explicit racial biases themselves. Their actions could be written into scripts or they may be directed to behave in a certain way, again without any conscious effort on the part of the writers or directors. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that audiences of millions are regularly exposed to very subtle forms of racial bias that can affect their own behaviour.
Max Weisbuch from Tufts University showed volunteers a series of clips taken from episodes of 11 popular shows, including CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes and House, with an average weekly audience of 9 million Americans. Each show has a racially diverse cast, and Weisbuch focused on an important black character from each show. He chose his clips systematically, taking the first scene where the chosen black character interacted with a white one of roughly equal status within the first, middle and last 5 minute bursts of each episode. Matching for status is important – it obviates the fact that black characters are sometimes less prominent or important to a show.
Weisbuch cut the audio and the featured character from each clip, leaving behind just the reactions of their conversational partner. Each altered clip was shown to 23 white students who had never seen any of the 11 shows. Without any clues from tone of voice or choice of words, the students judged that responses to unseen white characters were significantly more positive than those to unseen black characters.
In the early days of the last US elections, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was accused of deliberately darkening Barack Obama’s skin in a TV ad. The implication was that by highlighting Obama’s “blackness”, Clinton’s camp was trying to exploit negative associations that voters might have with darker skin. But you don’t need editing software to do that – a fascinating new study suggest that people literally change the way they see a mixed-race politician, depending on whether the candidate represents their own political views.
Liberal American students tend to think that lighter photos of Barack Obama are more typical of him, while conservatives think he’s best represented by darker photos. You can see this effect even after adjusting for any racial prejudices, be they hidden or overt, and even with a person less famous than Obama. And regardless of political views, people who associated Obama with lightened photos were most likely to vote for him.
Eugene Caruso from the University of Chicago, who led the study, thinks that this effect is the result of two biases: the positive associations of white and lightness among some Western cultures; and the tendency to view people of the same group (political or otherwise) more favourably than those of another group. He says, “Group membership provides a lens through which people generate representations of reality.”
Caruso asked 221 students about their political ideologies and then showed them three photos of Obama and three of John McCain. On the grounds that some photos can capture the “true essence” of a politician better than others, the students were asked to rate how well each photo represented each man. But unbeknownst to them, two of each set of pictures had been altered with Photoshop, so that the subject’s skin tone was either lighter or darker.
When it came to McCain, the students’ political leanings had no bearing on their choice of photos. For Obama, it was a different matter – liberal students were more likely to pick the lightened photo as the one that represented him best. Conservative students were more than twice as likely to associate him with the darkened photo. These biases were reflected in the students’ votes. Whether liberal or conservative, the more people associated Obama with the lightened photo, the more they were likely to vote for him.
Of course, this effect could simply be down to racism – people who harbour prejudices against Blacks would be more likely to associate Obama with a darker photo and less likely to vote for him. But Caruso accounted for that – he repeated the experiment with 49 people a week before the last election and specifically evaluated the recruits’ attitudes on race.
Each of them filled in a questionnaire called the Attitudes Toward Blacks scale, which asked them whether they agreed with statements such as “Generally, Blacks are not as smart as Whites.” Obviously, people can lie on these questionnaires, so each volunteer also did an “implicit association test” (IAT), designed to reveal any hidden prejudices (try one here).
The same patterns emerged as before and this time, Caruso found that they remained even after adjusting for racial attitudes, both hidden and explicit. A week after the election, Caruso caught up with his recruits and confirmed that those who thought the lightened photos represented Obama were actually more likely to have voted for him. Those who linked him to the darkened photo were more likely to have voted for McCain. Amazingly, the photo effect turned out to be a better indicator of voting choice than the scores on either of the two prejudice tests.
Barack Obama’s fame is perhaps a bit of a distractor since people can judge him on his policies, personality and more than just his skin colour. But Caruso found the same effect using a non-celebrity. He asked 102 students about their views on important educational issues and then showed them three photos of a man allegedly running for a position in the US Department of Education. He told them that the mystery politician either agreed or disagreed with most of their stances.
But Caruso kept two important things from the recruits. First, the ‘politician’ was actually Jarome Iginla, a mixed-race ice hockey player whose father was a Black Nigerian and whose mother was a White American. None of the students twigged to this. Secondly, as before, some of the photos had been doctored so that Iginla’s skin tone was either lighter or darker.
The same trend emerged. Caruso found that students who were told that the politician supported their views were more than twice as likely to pick the lightened photo as the most representative one. Those who thought that Iginla disagreed with them were more likely to associate him with the darkened photo. And across the board, people who picked the lightened photo were most likely to vote for him.
Across all three experiments, the way that American students literally see a mixed-race politician depends on whether they agree with his views. If they felt aligned with a candidate, they tended to mentally lighten his skin, and Caruso suggests that this might reflect subconscious associations of white with good, and black with bad. Sadly, the study provides no information about the ethnicity of the students involved – it would be very interesting to see if the same bias in perception applies to viewers who are themselves Black.
Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0905362106
More on politics:
A common problem afflicting modern psychology is that it’s mainly based on experiments with middle-class white people, often from North America or Europe. Open up the field of inquiry to other cultures, social circles or ethnic groups and different trends come to the fore.
Take the effects of a baby-face. Decades of studies have found that rounded, smooth, young-looking faces engender trust and sympathy. People adorned with such youthful looks tend to be treated with more sensitivity and patience, receive more lenient sentences, and make better spokespeople during PR crises. But these disarming faces come at a price – they’re also associated with weakness and incompetence, which can harm those striving for positions of authority. Indeed, previous studies have shown that baby faces are rare among the highest echelons of business.
But these studies have only ever been done in white men. Robert Livingston and Nicholas Pearce found that the opposite is true for black men. Baby faces are more common among black chief executive officers (CEOs) than their white peers. Not only that, but there was some suggestion that men with such faces tend to command larger salaries and lead more powerful corporations than those with sterner countenances.
Black people in the US face more obstacles in their path to top than their white counterparts do. In addition to proving their diligence, skill and competence, they must fight against prejudices and stereotypes of black people as less intelligent or even threatening. Livingston and Pearce suggest that far from being a hindrance, a disarming face actually helps black men by cancelling out the stereotypes that might otherwise weight down their social climb.
In American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.
With so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.
In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.
Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.
Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.
It’s been a big week. With a simple words, Barack Obama became the first black President of a country whose history has been so haunted by the spectre of racial prejudice. His election and inauguration are undoubtedly proud moments but they must not breed complacency. Things may be changing outwardly, but problems remain.
For a start, it goes without saying that many people, even the most liberal and left-wing among us, still harbour unconscious prejudices against members of other races. These “implicit biases” may be hidden, but their effects are often not. For example, a study published last year showed that unconscious biases can hold greater sway over a person’s voting decisions than their conscious, rational preferences.
Their influence becomes apparent even when we simply look at people of other races. It’s a well-known fact that people generally find it more difficult to distinguish between the faces of people from other ethnic groups than those of their own. This so-called “other-race effect” is the phenomenon behind claims that “they all look the same”. But looks are in the eye of the beholder and the other-race effect can be negated through experience with members of different races. For example, African infants who are adopted by white families develop a bias in distinguishing between faces that matches those of white children.
Sophie Lebrecht from Brown University sensed a link between poorer facial discrimination and greater racial discrimination. Her idea is simple: if someone finds it hard to tell the difference between people of a certain race, they will be more likely to characterise that entire group with broad stereotypes. When the lines between individuals blur, generalities start seeping in and implicit biases have a stronger influence. But if that’s the case, there may be a way around it – indeed, Lebrecht found that by training people to better discriminate between faces of other races, she could help to reduce their biased attitudes towards those races.