People overestimate their reactions to racism

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Picture the scene – you sit in a room with two other people, one white and one black, waiting for a psychological test. As the black person leaves to use their mobile phone, they bump the knee of the white person on their way out. While they’re gone, the white person turns to you and says, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that.” How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Angry? Indifferent? And would you want to work with that person later?

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This was the scenario that Kerry Kawakami from York University used to try and understand the state of race relations in 21st century America. Kawakami found that people are very bad at predicting their responses to racism. They may claim to shun hypothetical racists or be upset by their actions but when confronted by such people and events in reality, their predictions turn out to be dramatic overestimates of their actual feelings. This discrepancy may help to explain why racism is such a widely condemned but remarkably prevalent part of modern society.

Kawakami recruited 120 volunteers of various races (apart from black), sat each one in a room with two actors – one white, one black – and watched as the white student reacted to having their knee bumped. In some trials, they said nothing; in others, they said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” and in the most extreme cases, they said, “Clumsy nigger.” When the black partner returned, all three were asked to fill in a survey about their current state of mind and the real volunteer was asked to pick one of the other two to help them complete a word task.

Only half of the volunteers – the “experiencer” group – actually sat through these events. The other half – the “forecasters” – were only told about it and asked to put themselves in the shoes of an experiencer. Kawakimi found that their forecasts of their feelings and reactions bore little resemblance to the way the experiencers actually behaved.

Expectedly, forecasters said that they would be very upset by either racist slur. In reality, the experiencers were largely indifferent, and those who heard negative remarks were actually no more distressed than those whose partners hadn’t said anything at all. Likewise, only about 10-20% of the forecasters said that they would choose the white person as their partner over the black one but a much higher 63% of the experiencers actually did so. If anything, they were more likely to pick their white associate if they made a racist slur than if they said nothing.

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Kawakami found that forecasters behaved in the same way if they were told that the events they were hearing about were real or fictional. Nor did their predictions become more accurate when they were given a more vivid experience. Kawakami showed another group a video of the scenario shot from the experiencer’s point of view and, as before, they predicted that they would feel more upset than experiencers actually did. And again, while only a minority (17%) said that they would pick the white commenter as their partner as before, the majority of experiencers (73%) actually did so.

Kawakimi’s results suggest that people really are terrible at predicting the extent to which racist comments would upset them and whether they would distance themselves from people who said such comments. The two mistakes are probably related – people think that they would reject racism because they overestimate how much it would really affect them.

Even the word “nigger” – widely regarded as one of the most offensive words in the English language – didn’t bother people that much and didn’t change their likelihood of associating with another person. Acts that ought to make the blood boil were actually met with indifference.

Of course, with any such study, you have to take care to account for other possible explanations for the data and Kawakimi’s group are no exception. It’s possible that the forecasters responded based on what society expects of them, rather than their true inclinations, or that they were embarrassed about appearing as racists in front of researchers. But the experiencers were in the same boat, so social norms are unlikely to account for their different behaviour. Nor is it likely that the experiencers were driven by simple embarrassment or guilt – after all their responses were the same even when their partner had said nothing at all.

So what explains the discrepancy between predictions and reality? For a start, volunteers could have downplayed the comments in reality. Other studies have found that people have a remarkable capacity for repainting bad situations in the best possible light, and that they are largely unaware of how strong this tendency is. Hypothetically, they were incensed by a racist comment, but in the flesh, they could have brushed it aside as a harmless remark or a joke.

Perhaps more straightforwardly, it could be that the volunteers were just largely indifferent to racial issues. When predicting their responses, they deliberated thoughtfully over their responses, allowing society-wide standards to come into play. But when it came down to it, unconscious biases towards black people that they may not have accounted for, or even been aware of, may have steered their actions (do you have any?).

In some ways, the results aren’t that surprising. Time and again, psychological studies have found that people are really bad at predicting their own emotional responses, even to everyday events. We have remarkably little inkling about how upset we would feel in bad situations or what sorts of things would really make us happy (see Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book Stumbling on Happiness for more of this).

Kawakami’s study suggests that the same failure to foresee our future emotions could affect our attitudes to racism. Racism may theoretically carry a heavy stigma, but people are less bothered by it than they would expect, and are loathe to take issue with their fellows for racist actions. And remember that the experiencers in this study were never asked to actually confront the person in question.

The lack of such censure can help to explain why the stigma of racism is so rarely enforced, why acts that ought to be condemned are instead allowed to slide and why racism is such a unfortunate feature of our everyday lives. Even so, being aware of this effect is surely the first step to resisting it.

Reference: K. Kawakami, E. Dunn, F. Karmali, J. F. Dovidio (2009). Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism Science, 323 (5911), 276-278 DOI: 10.1126/science.1164951

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