The Situationist

Archive for April 1st, 2008

The Situation of Staring

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 1, 2008

by Makasu - FlickrFrom American Psychological Science:

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It’s happened to all of us: While sitting at the conference table or at dinner party, a friend or colleague unleashes a questionable remark that could offend at least one person amongst the group. A hush falls and, if you’re like most people, your eyes will dart towards the person most likely to take offense to the faux pas. It’s a doubly unpleasant experience for the offended: Not only have you been insulted, but you have also suddenly become the center of unwelcome attention.

This almost instinctive stare toward the potentially offended has garnered the attention of researchers seeking to understand why this phenomenon occurs. Psychologist Jennifer Randall Crosby of Agnes Scott College and her colleagues created an experiment using the especially sensitive topic of race in order to take a closer look.

In a study appearing in the March issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the researchers had participants watch recorded discussions between four males (three White and one Black) that dealt with university admissions. In the course of the video, one of the white males makes this potentially controversial remark:

“I think one problem with admissions is that too many qualified White students are not getting the spots they’ve earned. These students work hard all through school and then lose their spots to members of certain groups who have lower test scores, and come from less challenging environments. They get an unfair advantage.”

In one condition, an off-screen narrator explicitly states that all participants are involved in the discussion. In the other, the narrator states that only two of the discussants (both white) could hear what was being said. The researchers then tracked participants’ eye movements as they watched the videos to examine when their gaze would shift toward the Black discussant.

Their results show that participants fixed their eyes on the Black discussant four times longer when they believed he could hear what was being said. According to the authors, this demonstrates that complex cognitive processes are work when we glance at potentially insulted persons. According to the researchers, “participants are simultaneously attending to what is said, who can hear what is said, the social identity of the listeners, and the possible reactions of the listeners.”

Why we do this behavior is still a somewhat of a mystery, but the authors suggest that people may seeking out the responses of potentially victimized group members to help them assess the situation. “Additional research is needed to address these issues,” write the authors, “but we believe this paradigm is rich with possibilities and can help illuminate how people go about answering the thorny question of what is appropriate and what is offensive.”

From Time Magazine:

When Imus mouthed off last year about the women’s basketball team from Rutgers, the media looked to African-American intellectuals and female cultural leaders to determine whether his remarks — referring to the young athletes as “nappy-headed hos” — were his standard brand of on-air provocation or if he had in fact crossed the line into racism.

In 2002, when then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott suggested that if separatist candidate Strom Thurmond had been elected President in the 1948 election, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years,” we turned to prominent members of the black community to determine how far he had overstepped.

“There was a lot of conversation about whether he was a racist, or whether was he just ignorant,” says Crosby. The ensuing cultural discourse, and subsequent condemnation of Lott’s comments, fascinated Crosby, and prompted her research. “How do we figure out what is discrimination?” she asked. More blatant offenses or extreme examples such as hate crimes are easier to determine. Crosby, however, wanted to home in on the nuanced and ambiguous circumstances more common in everyday life.

In her latest research, currently under peer review, she asked students to fill out questionnaires about scenarios in which discrimination was possible but not explicit. A company remains open on Martin Luther King Day, or a police officer stops a black man whose clothing and hair match those of a crime suspect, for example. “They’re ambiguous because we want more information,” Crosby says. “If it’s an ambulance company, you might want it to stay open,” or if the person in question is actually the criminal, you would want him to be stopped.

Participants were asked to rate the discrimination on a scale from 1 to 9, where 1 represented no discrimination, and 9 definite discrimination. To gauge how people influence one another’s views of discrimination, she made the questionnaires appear as if previous participants had filled out their answers on the same page. “When faced with responses attributed to a white individual, people averaged 4.4 when whites said the items weren’t discrimination and 5.2 when whites said the items were discrimination. When the same responses were attributed to a black individual, the means were 3.3 and 6.1, respectively — a significant move from the baseline,” she explains.

Consistent with her previous findings, non-blacks’ assessments of the situations were strongly affected by whether African Americans had supposedly answered before them.

Crosby worries that this deference may mean we don’t trust our own instincts when deciding what is offensive. As Benoit Monin, one of the study’s co-authors, says, “That’s great, of course, that downtrodden groups have a voice,” but it also means that too often we may be leaving the responsibility for confronting discrimination in the hands of those discriminated against.

Crosby recalls an example of this from her undergraduate career at Stanford. The school’s sports teams were called the Indians from 1930 to 1972, when the name was dropped because of protest from Native American students. Still, from time to time the former mascot would appear on t-shirts and paraphernalia — and each time it fell to Native American students to bring up their objections to the administration, Crosby says. “Why is it always their job?” she asks.

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To read a related Situationist post, see “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

Posted in Conflict, Life | 3 Comments »

Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part V

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 1, 2008

There is a video interview of Tony Greewald and Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji on Edge. We’re posting parts of the transcript in severalMahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald bite-sized installments. Part I is here; Part II is here; Part III is here; and Part IV is here.

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BANAJI: Liberals sometimes have trouble with this test. Thy have put themselves into a separate category where they do no harm but everybody else, say those who live south of the Mason-Dixon or whatever, are the really prejudiced people. When we show that self-professed liberals are biased too, there is some squirming.

GREENWALD: The test has critics, but of about 500 scientific publications on the IAT so far, perhaps two or three percent are critical. This criticism has sometimes been very useful in guiding research. In some cases, the research has shown that the criticism was not valid. In other cases, the criticism has been found to be valid and has led to improvement of the IAT’s design.

BANAJI: But there is a response from the scientists which has parallels in the older sciences. Our methods are certainly critical of older methods in the sense that we believe that for a hundred years psychology relied extensively on self report, on asking people, “What do you think about this or that?” Just as with hypertension, where I no longer ask “What do you think your blood pressure reads right now?”—I would measure it with an objective tool—here is a situation in which asking people may not always lead to the useful answer.

Confirmation from other measures of what the IAT is tapping can be useful and we have such research, adding newly to our interpretations. One tool that I have found to be helpful in this regard is the use of fMRI to observe neural activity in predefined brain regions known to have particular capacities and to relate the IAT measure to it.

GREENWALD: To this point, there have been relatively few studies lining up fMRI imaging results with the IAT. Whereas the IAT can be administered in less than five minutes and costs very little to administer, obtaining the imaging data usually requires at least an hour, 20 or 30 minutes of which is spent inside an MRI scanner that makes a huge racket.

BANAJI: It has been ten years since the test went up on the Web—it went up in 1998—and we may have surpassed the six million mark in terms of completed tests. This makes it probably the largest such data collection on the Web. In terms of the research, it is very gratifying to see groups of people just picking it up and doing whatever they want to with it, including high school students.

Image by thesmokingsection - flickrOne area of great interest to me personally is the question of where these biases emerge from, especially the intergroup ones. Both in terms of evolution and in terms of our development from birth to adulthood. A large part of my lab’s work right now is focused on understanding how these biases operate in the minds of young children. Can we develop analogs of this test so that we can use it with infants? (Don’t know yet). We’d like to figure out how early in life babies become fascinated by what is familiar, what sounds like their mother, and from which a sense of self versus other, us versus them emerges.

I am very interested in the connections to the neuroscientific evidence. Can we converge, with different types of evidence on understanding how we treat others who are not like ourselves? Members of other species, members of our own species who have different beliefs (Hindu vs Muslim). Research by my colleague Jason Mitchell shows that indeed we may not engage the same brain region when thinking about somebody who is say a social democrat (similar to self) versus somebody who is different (a fundamentalist Christian). Judges need to know that. All of us need to know that.

GREENWALD: Within the next ten years, we expect a few uses for the IAT to become well established. One already developed use is educational, providing new ways to achieve what diversity training programs now try to achieve. There is much interest in using the IAT in this way to give people some self-insight that might help them improve how they function in their jobs. Another developing use is for clinical psychological diagnosis. Imagine someone taking an IAT on a handheld computer in the waiting room of a hospital or clinic, rapidly providing information that can help the clinician to understand something that the patient may be unable to describe to the clinician. Clinical psychologists have recently been adapting the IAT for such uses, although we have yet created the technology needed to administer it in the waiting room.

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To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To take the “Presidential Candidates IAT,” click here. To review previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

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