April 03, 2004

It Doesn't, oops, Didn't Matter If You're Black Or White According to a recent study conducted at Dartmouth College, racially biased people take longer to perform tasks when they have to make an effort to control their racial responses and actions.

The study was based on a series of tests conducted on 30 white Dartmouth undergraduate volunteers. They were first administered an Implicit Awareness Test(some online IATs) consisting of associating names(such as Latisha or Greg) with attributes like 'good', 'health', 'ugly'...etc. Scores on this test were used as a baseline indicator of a subject's racial prejudice. Then the subjects conversed for 5 minutes with either a black or white experimenter on topics like college social groups or racial profiling. Immediately afterwards, they completed a Stroop Task. Their performance on this task correlated well with their IAT scores, in terms of showing that those subjects with greater IAT-measured prejudice and who conversed with a black experimenter, perfomed worse on the Stroop task. Two weeks later, in what seemed like an unrelated experiment to the same volunteers, fMRI scans were performed on them while viewing unfamiliar black and white male faces(pdf). The activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex(critical in working memory, thus cognitive control) was proportional to the IAT scores while viewing a black face. The study, of course, isn't without controversy. Of particular concern is the use of this and related research to devise a screening process for recruits in various fields like police or government.

  • Is this really the best way to foster racial harmony? "We know you are trying to not act upon prejudices you have been given by your society, but we can see you trying, so you are still racist," which is a very powerful moral condemnation, at least in North America. It might be true (that many people have internalised prejudices), but something like this can so easily come off as blaming the person, rather than talking about the ways that the society as a whole does not work for integration. Also, I wonder if prejudices are so simple. I am going to draw on my own experiences, as I know them best. I know that I have some prejudices against young black men wearing hip-hop clothing, expecially if they sprawl across bus seats. This is very irrational, of course, but based on a few incidences when I was a teenager (as in my neighbourhood, I was a minority, and nerdy); it also translates to all boys of any colour who wear that style of clothing and have the similar body gestures (which are themselves stylised). However, if I saw a young black man wearing something radically different, like a nerdy linux t-shirt, or a suit, my associations are totally different. Then I would say the main problem is feeling slightly uncomfortable discussing race relations with my black friends, as I would fear offending them (classic liberal guilt). Some might say then that I would want black people to act white - but I have positive associations with historically black culture, including gospel music. (I was raised on novels like Roll of Thunder, hear my cry*). So my associations are specifically with teenage wanna be gangsters. Though I always felt very angry at bus drivers who gave them (or anyone) a hard time with no good reason (passenger solidarity overrides all). No one could argue that anywhere in North America is colour blind, except some kindergardens. But I wonder if these sorts of studies are getting really at how people interact. Prejudices are based on all sorts of things, including one's experiences. The big questions are: okay, what do we do about them?
  • jb, it's just as important to not ignore these studies, or avoid researching these aspects. To be fair, the study doesn't actually show anything surprising. It says that if something is distracting you or taking up mental resources, then that will hamper mental performance. In this case, the "something" happens to be racial prejudices. What I should be surprised by (but am not == cynic), is that these scientists are playing this, as if race discrimination, uniquely affects mental performance.
  • Yes, this article is somewhat specious, tending to phrenology I think. But as Gyan says, facts can't be ignored. The important thing is what useful things we can get from them without making outlandish assumptions about the results or test subjects. We all have all kind of prejudices and, the older they are, the difficult it is for us too get rid of them. Still we can consciously try to not get driven by them. I tend to appreciate more the people that make an effort to be nice and fair than those for whom it takes no effort at all.
  • I assume whats being noticed here is just that these people are ill at ease. I expect its impossible to work out whether its due to racism, or shyness, or any of a million other reasons why you don't feel comfortable talking to people.
  • Actually, what is being studied is how quickly/easily people match up positive concepts with names normally considered "white" as opposed to those which are popular among black Americans. Similar studies have used photographs. Yes, I agree, Gyan, that studying stereotypes is very important - I have a friend working in that area in fact (who always has great experiment stories to tell). I guess my reaction from more from a "now what?" perspective, partly because in my field, issues like race (and class, and gender) are often studied, but few answers produced. I wonder if the ways scholars approach these issues are sometimes narrow. What would it mean, for instance, to match a photograph of a black American with a name like Greg? Would this change the effect? How much do cultural differences and stereotypes play in, rather than simply skin colour? What about other non-white minorities? Immigrants with accents? (It is towards those with strong accents or poor English that I have seen the most active discrimination in Toronto). I also wonder how race issues are constructed outside of the US, as this is a very unique society. Sometimes I think they are overplayed here (as opposed to class issues), but they are certainly underplayed elsewhere, as in Canada.
  • It is towards those with strong accents or poor English that I have seen the most active discrimination in Toronto That's my impression too. I'm Chinese Torontonian Canadian with a heavy accent. No one in Toronto has ever shown me the slightest hint of discrimination before I speak. Accent is a different issue from race though.
  • But this concept can be applied towards anyone who is different from the person being tested. Black, white, male, female, disabled, deformed, fat, emaciated, ugly, gorgeous, Quaker, Jew, Muslim, whatever. Wouldn't these tasks also take longer to perform if the room was too hot or too cold. I don't see this as a good way of testing the subject matter. Too many variables.
  • The problem with the study: they used 30 white college undergraduates. At that age, the subject's life experience is basically comprised of school, home life and friends. In other words, familiarity. They haven't been out in the real world or in the workforce, where there is far more diversity. We all have our basic biases, mostly based on lack of familiarity. So I think if the same study were done using 30 black undergraduates you'd get much the same result. If you want to take it a step further, those 30 black undergraduates can be from historical black colleges, to counterbalance the whiteness of Dartmouth. Aside from that, jb put it better than I could about the difference between fleeting emotional reaction and actual behavior. This research is important, but we should be careful about drawing conclusions. It's an interesting topic, though.
  • de Carabas I don't know, these were Dartmouth undergrads. They might have had work experience as interns. Some biases are based on lack of experience, but some are based on experience, as in when you extrapolate personal experience into a generalization.
  • I wonder - is there a difference between stereotypes developed from experience versus those from inexperience?
  • I would think you have stronger conviction in stereotypes from experience, than those secondhand.
  • How can you form a bias from lack of experience? You mean, lack of direct experience? Because those who lack direct experience form their stereotypes out of popular culture and education, I guess.
  • I would think you have stronger conviction in stereotypes from experience, than those secondhand. oh, I didn't catch that.
  • I would think you have stronger conviction in stereotypes from experience, than those secondhand. Let's see the MRI test for this one, then.