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It’s one thing to hear reports of racial slurs being hurled at individuals or to see such epithets in literature or as graffiti on walls. But how would you react if someone used such language in your presence?
Shocked. Disgusted. Outraged. Even horrified, some might say. However, a Canadian-led study suggests real-life responses to prejudice don’t always reflect how people think they will react.
In the study, which appears in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, undergraduate students at Toronto’s York University took part in experiments which cast them in distinct roles: those observing racist remarks first-hand and others who read about such a scenario or watched it unfold on video.
Students were led into a room and seated in a preselected chair thinking they were waiting for an experiment to begin. They were followed into the room by two males posing as participants: one black and one white.
Shortly after, the black male remarks that he has left his cellphone in the hallway, and on his way out to retrieve it gently bumps the white male’s leg with his foot.
Once the black person has left, the white male who’s part of the experiment makes a remark that is either classified as an extreme racist comment [used the N-word], a moderate racist comment or he says nothing at all. The extreme comment used was “clumsy nigger” and the moderate racist comment was “typical, I hate it when black people do that.”
Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to rate their feelings in the moment and then asked to select a partner to complete a task.
Those who read about or watched the scenario were asked to predict how someone seeing this happen would feel, and whether they would select the white male or black male as a partner.
This group of observers – dubbed “forecasters” – believed people who heard the slurs would be very upset and more likely to pick the black person over the white person.
But in reality, the racist remarks didn’t affect those who heard them first-hand – called “experiencers” – and they were more likely (63 per cent) to select the white person as their lab partner.
“We definitely were surprised,” said lead author and York psychology professor Kerry Kawakami. “It’s like these nasty racist comments aren’t having an effect.”
“We thought that people would have positive illusions about how they would respond to racism, so that they would predict that they would be much more upset than they were and that they would avoid the white racist more. But we were surprised that it had no impact at all.”
“It didn’t affect them emotionally at all and it didn’t affect their choice of who they wanted to work with at all. Those findings are shocking to everyone in my lab.”
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Kawakami said they are exploring several possibilities as to why individuals would react with such indifference to racist remarks.
One theory is perhaps the nature of the situation was so threatening for participants they simply suppressed all thoughts and emotions. Another is that while people think they’re not prejudiced on a controlled level, on a non-conscious, internal level, they may actually have a lot of negative associations with blacks, she said.
“You’re not going to react negatively towards that person because they’re saying things that you wouldn’t say but that you still might somehow – at least on a non-conscious level – think are true.”
Eliot Smith, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, co-wrote a commentary on the study with Diane Mackie, a psychology professor at University of California, Santa Barbara.
The pair suggest the findings are an example of what is referred to as “a failure of affective forecasting” – people who improperly predict how they would feel and therefore act in imagined or future situations.
Research by Smith and Mackie has explored how emotions affect memberships of social groups that are important to individuals, such as a woman who feels pride if another woman gets a promotion. Smith said it struck them that the new study’s results might be a reflection of that process.
“We definitely found the result very interesting and surprising . . . and we just wanted to put this little twist on it, the idea that sometimes when our emotions do surprise us, it’s a way that we can learn kind of maybe for the first time, what identity we’re in in a particular situation.”
Research also reveals situational cues like things in the environment or that people say can also lead people to switch from one identity to another, he said.
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The study is consistent with decades of psychology research pointing to the same thing: People are really bad at predicting their own actions in socially sensitive situations.
“That point is getting renewed attention as researchers develop more extensive evidence establishing reasons to distrust self-report measures concerning racial attitudes,” said Anthony Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who was not involved with the study.
The racism study harkens back to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment that began in the early 1960s, in which most people obeyed orders to deliver electric shocks to an innocent person in the next room. Many psychiatrists had predicted that the majority of subjects would stop when the victim protested, but this was not the case.
“The failure of people to confront or do anything about racist comments is pretty widespread in the real world,” said . . . Smith . . . . “People may feel uncomfortable if someone makes a remark like this, but it’s rare they will actually confront them.”
More recent work by Greenwald and colleagues shows that most people — between 75 and 80 percent — have implicit, non-overt prejudices against blacks.
What is responsible for these attitudes? Experts say one culprit is images in television, news and film that portray blacks in a negative light.
“I don’t think what’s in people’s heads is going to change until the environment that places these things in their head has changed,” Greenwald said.
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“It’s important to remind people that just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States,” Kawakami added.
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To learn more about implicit associations, 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. For a collection of Situationist posts discussing Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.