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Sunday, December 18, 2011

'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist': Psychology of Racism

Please welcome guest blogger Ryan Hansen, a graduate student in clinical psychology.  He writes about the deep psychological underpinnings of racism and it's strong grip on society:

There is a comic song in Avenue Q titled "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." In the psychological literature, there are numerous studies that suggest that this actually more true than you might realize (See post: What is Racism?). I don't mean racist in the burning crosses or Aryan brotherhood sense, but rather the fact that our brains often cut corners for the sake of efficiency. 

Research in cognitive psychology shows that one of the reasons our brains are able to do things that computers can't is because they rely on heuristics Heuristics are mental rules that allow us to make guesses using stereotypes and memories that most easily come to mind.  

Most of the time we use these heuristics without realizing it, and they do produce a favorable result. However, unless we are conscious of the situations in which these heuristics break down, we can end up thinking and behaving in very racist ways despite the best of intentions (See post: Does Intent Matter?).

For a benign example of how we use heuristics on an everyday basis, close your eyes and try to imagine what a penny looks like in as much detail as possible.  Now try and pick out the real penny from the image to the left.  Think about how many pennies you've handled over the course of your lifetime- it should be a no brainer!  

However, our memories are not like video-cameras, but more like zip files. You're brain only stores some features, such as the fact that it has Lincoln's head and a date on it, and fills in the rest as best it can.

A more troubling example is eyewitness testimony. I teach introductory psychology a large Midwestern university, and recently conducted a demonstration where I showed my class a video of a man stealing a bike in New York.  Take a second to watch the first theft in the video below. Pretend you are a witness on the scene, and justice will rest on how accurately you are able to describe the perpetrator.

I had my classes fill out a brief survey after watching the video, and they described the bike thief as having the following characteristics:
       Type of Shirt: Jacket, Long sleeve shirt, Hoodie, T-shirt, Wife-Beater, Coat, Trench Coat
       Color of Shirt: Grey, Blue, White, Beige, Black, Navy, Red, Green,
       Type of Pants:  Shorts, Jeans, Khakis, Sweat Pants, Slacks
       Color of Pants:  Tan, Blue, Brown, White, Whitewash, Light Blue
       Height: 5-6’3
       Hair: Short, Blond, Brown, Dirty Blond, Bald, Had Hoodie Up, Buzz Cut, Had Goatee
       Weight: 120-250
       Tattoo: Long sleeve tattoos, Dragon Tattoo
       Race: Black, White
       Tool: Bolt Cutters, Picked the Lock, Bent with pliars, Crow-Bar, Big Wrench

Notice that several students reported the thief having hair, when in fact he is bald.  Unless the students took special notice the fact that he was bald, when their brain re-created the memory their memory to be able to answer the survey, it filled in this minor detail with what it would expect to see on a white man in his twenties. 

Similarly, there were several students who remembered the bike thief having tattoos when he did not.  They probably don't know any bike thieves from first-hand experience, so as their brain was re-creating their memory during retrieval, they probably relied on images of criminals that they had gotten from the media, which are often portrayed as having elaborate tattoos. 

Most disturbing of all, some of them actually remembered the crimes being perpetrated by a black man. It would be very easy to try and write off this switch by assuming that these students are particularly racist or prejudiced.  Unfortunately, it is much more likely that this happened because their brain is cutting the exact same corners that our brains cut every day.

Consider how often African-Americans are portrayed as criminals on television. This is the information our brains will use to fill in these gaps and make split-second decisions unless we consciously take steps to avoid it.

This is why not being racist is not a one-time decision, but rather a discipline that requires conscious thought and effort.  Someone may have the best intentions in the world, but they will think and behave in racist ways by default unless they are aware of their biases and take steps to correct them. 

To make matters worse, research suggests that the more we have on our minds, the more we rely on these stereotypes in making decisions. Noorderweier and  Stapel recently conducted a study which found that people having to do several tasks at once, such as memorizing numbers while reading vignettes, rely more on stereotypes when making judgments about people than those who had a lighter cognitive load.  Think of how often you multi-task in our fast-paced world! 

The moral of the story is that until we slow down, become aware of the ways in which our brains are naturally biased, and find ways to try and make up for them, there will continue to be a discrepancy between our commonly stated values of equality and the racial micro- and macro-aggressions that we commit on a daily basis.

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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