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Friendliness to minorities often a performance—a fragile one, research suggests

Aug. 18, 2012
Special to World Science  

Many white peo­ple be­have ex­tra nicely to mi­nor­i­ties, but it’s a per­for­mance that arises out of a sense of obliga­t­ion and that breaks down easily un­der stress, new re­search sug­gests.

The psy­chol­o­gists who over­saw the re­search say that many of us try to be­have a “cor­rect” way around mi­nor­i­ties, but that it might be more help­ful to de­vel­op a gen­u­ine com­fort with them by pur­su­ing life ex­pe­ri­ences that im­prove our out­look to­ward stig­mat­ized groups.

The work by Wendy Ber­ry Mendes and Ka­tri­na Koslov of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cis­co, sug­gests many white peo­ple act ex­tra friendly to­ward mi­nor­i­ties be­cause they feel pres­sure to over­cor­rect for their own prej­u­dices.

The scientists’ re­port, en­ti­tled “Brit­tle Smiles: Pos­i­tive Bi­ases To­ward Stig­ma­tized and Out­group Tar­gets,” is pub­lished in the Aug. 13 early on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy, Gen­er­al.

The re­search­ers an­a­lyzed the ac­tions of white peo­ple who were paired to­geth­er in var­i­ous interac­tions with oth­er whites, blacks, as well as peo­ple who had a large, realistic-looking, painted-on birth­mark. The par­ti­ci­pants weren’t told the real pur­poses of the stud­ies and were in­stead told they would be eval­u­at­ed for things such as “phys­i­o­log­ical re­sponses dur­ing lab­o­r­a­to­ry tasks.”

“In our daily lives, we of­ten have to cen­sor our pub­lic face by mon­i­tor­ing our be­hav­iors, ex­pres­sions, and words,” the re­search­ers wrote. As part of this, they added, there is a fre­quent ten­den­cy for peo­ple to “ex­ag­ger­ate their pos­i­tive be­hav­iors to­wards and pref­er­ences for stig­ma­tized and out­group mem­bers.”

But “these cor­rec­tion strate­gies, be­cause they are ef­fort­ful and re­quire re­sources, can be dis­rupted with stress or cog­ni­tive load.”

In one ex­pe­ri­ment, the re­search­ers found that whites paired with blacks in a lab­o­r­a­to­ry in­ter­ac­tion smiled more of­ten and used more pos­i­tive words than they did with other whites. In anoth­er ex­pe­ri­ment, white peo­ple who had scored more poorly on a test de­signed to re­veal un­con­scious ra­cial bi­ases ac­tu­ally eval­u­at­ed a group of fic­tion­al re­sumes more fa­vorably if they had stereo­typic­ally black names than if they had stereo­typic­ally white names. But this ten­den­cy broke down if this proj­ect was paired with anoth­er task de­signed to be stress­ful and dif­fi­cult.

Sev­er­al oth­er tests gave re­sults along si­m­i­lar lines.

“Over-cor­rec­tion… re­quires self-regulato­ry ef­fort and is based on the goal of ap­pear­ing un­prej­u­diced,” the re­search­ers wrote. 

“Taken to­geth­er, these stud­ies ex­pose the some­times frag­ile na­ture of ex­plic­it race pref­er­ences, and that these cor­rec­tive pro­cesses may dis­ap­pear when [men­tal] re­sources are ex­haust­ed,” they added. “Pop­u­lar cul­ture is re­plete with ex­am­ples of fail­ures of self-con­trol lead­ing to ex­po­sures of ra­cial bias.”

“If over-cor­rec­tion is borne of a de­sire to ap­pear un­prej­u­diced, then it may be a weak strat­e­gy for achiev­ing that goal, only use­ful when an in­di­vid­ual has suf­fi­cient self-regulato­ry re­sources,” they sug­gested. “Pur­su­ing life ex­pe­ri­ences that could re­lieve anx­i­e­ty around mi­nor­ity group mem­bers or change un­der­ly­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards them is likely to be a more re­sil­ient and per­ma­nent way to achieve a goal of egal­i­tar­ian be­hav­ior.”


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Many white people behave extra nicely to minorities, but it’s a performance that arises out of a sense of obligation and that breaks down easily under stress, new research suggests. The psychologists who oversaw the research say that many of us try to behave a “correct” way around minorities, but that it might be more helpful to develop a genuine comfort with them by pursuing life experiences that change our outlook toward stigmatized groups. The work by Wendy Berry Mendes and Katrina Koslov of the University of California, San Francisco, suggests many white people act extra friendly toward minorities because they feel pressure to overcorrect for their own prejudices. Their report, entitled “Brittle Smiles: Positive Biases Toward Stigmatized and Outgroup Targets,” is published in the Aug. 13 early online issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, General. The researchers analyzed the actions of white people who were paired together in various interactions with other whites, blacks, as well as people who had a large, realistic-looking, painted-on birthmark. The participants weren’t told the real purpose of the studies and were instead told they were being evaluated for “physiological responses during laboratory tasks.” “In our daily lives, we often have to censor our public face by monitoring our behaviors, expressions, and words,” the researchers wrote. As part of this, they added, there is a frequent tendency for people to “exaggerate their positive behaviors towards and preferences for stigmatized and outgroup members.” But “these correction strategies, because they are effortful and require resources, can be disrupted with stress or cognitive load.” In one experiment, the researchers found that whites paired with blacks in a laboratory interaction smiled more often and used more positive words than they did with whites. In another experiment, white people who had scored more poorly on a test designed to reveal unconscious racial biases actually evaluated a group of fictional resumes more favorably if they had stereotypically black names than if they had stereotypically white names. But this tendency broke down if this project was paired with another task designed to be stressful and difficult. Several other tests gave results along similar lines. “Over-correction… requires self-regulatory effort and is based on the goal of appearing unprejudiced,” the researchers wrote. “Taken together, these studies expose the sometimes fragile nature of explicit race preferences, and that these corrective processes may disappear when resources are exhausted,” they added. “Popular culture is replete with examples of failures of self-control leading to exposures of racial bias.” “If over-correction is borne of a desire to appear unprejudiced, then it may be a weak strategy for achieving that goal, only useful when an individual has sufficient self-regulatory resources,” they suggested. “Pursuing life experiences that could relieve anxiety around minority group members or change underlying attitudes towards them is likely to be a more resilient and permanent way to achieve a goal of egalitarian behavior.”