This week, I get to ramble more about Psychology. So let’s delve into my more specific field of study, Social Psychology, and the scientific study of racism.
Crash, the 2004 film by Paul Haggis, swept the Toronto film festival and won the Academy Award for best picture. It was hailed by critics for its discussion and meditation on race relations in America (specifically Los Angeles, but it can be generalized). Haggis focuses on a vicious cycle of prejudice, where victims of stereotyping stereotype others and in this cycle, the characters learn through this reflection of bigotry. It’s a little anvilicious at times, but the movie allows me to talk about theories of race relations in social psychology.
Modern Racism Theory is a recent concept that has evolved as attitudes and policies towards race relations have changed since the 1960’s. It suggests that prejudice towards other races has shifted from out-right, “old-fashioned” explicit racism to a more subtle, harder to detect, implicit form. Crash really focuses on Modern Racism in its themes, showing that racism usually isn’t something that people are aware they’re doing. Normal people don’t consciously decide or commit to racism, it’s an ugly monster that has multiple faces and is often buried in unconscious layers.
One of the ways we as psychologists measure implicit (or unconscious) racism is using something called the Implicit Associations Test. The test measures the strength of implicit associations between two concepts.
It’s a little sorting game, let me do a short demonstration. Get a standard pack of playing cards and a stopwatch. Now, remove the jokers, shuffle the cards, and start the stopwatch.
Sort hearts and diamonds into one pile on the left and spades and clubs into another pile on the right. Go as fast as you can and write your time down afterwards. Now, re-shuffle the cards and sort hearts and clubs to the left and spades and diamonds to the right, again going as fast as you can.
Even if you DIDN’T do the demonstration, you could imagine that the second pairing is much harder to do than the first, because you have an implicit association between the hearts/diamonds and spades/clubs- the colors. The IAT works on the same principle, asking participants to sort words into two paired categories as fast as possible.
You can do demonstrations of various IAT’s for yourself HERE if you want, but NOTE: some people may not want to know about their inherent biases. Now, just because the test may say that you implicitly lean one way or the other on issues doesn’t exactly make you prejudiced or any kind of “ist,” all it says is that you have this bias, how you act on that is up to you. NAACP leaders have taken it and registered “pro-white” leaning. Just because you have the propensity for the bias DOES NOT make you prejudiced, but it is something to know about yourself and monitor.
The prominence of racial awareness in society has put racial equality and equity into the forefront of peoples minds; this can sometimes conflict with people’s gut-level reactions and implicit attitudes, inducing cognitive dissonance. This may be why you hear people say things such as “I’m not racist! My best friend is…” or “I’m not racist, but…” before saying a racist remark in an attempt to lower this dissonance.
Back in the 1970’s a badass named Henri Tajfel came up with something called Social Identity Theory. SIT proposes that an individual’s self esteem comes not only from their personal identity and accomplishments, but by the status and accomplishments of the group to which they belong. This relates to the character of Anthony, played by the rapper Ludacris.
Social Identity Theory says that humans automatically categorize themselves and others into categories and then compare those categories- this comparison then contributes to an individual’s self esteem. In the film, Anthony constantly compares himself and his group (African Americans) to whites, whom he sees as oppressors. Anthony’s entire self-image and identity is comprised of his comparison to whites and other groups. In his Endeavour to resist or oppose racism and stereotypes, he actually reinforces them.
Anthony complains that the waitress didn’t serve him as well as the white people because she saw they were black and assumed they would not tip her. Then Anthony’s friend points out that the waitress was black and that Anthony in fact did not leave a tip at all.
SIT has a third component that is related to the social category comparison called positive distinction. We have a naturally inclination to favour others like us (what is called the in-group) over others who are different from us (the out-group). More so, we have a motivation to show that our in-group is better than an out-group. This is related to the In-group Serving Bias, wherein we are more likely to make internal attributions (“it was because of me/us”) to positive reflections on our group and external attributions (“it was because of everything else but us!”) to negative reflections on our group (and vice-versa for out-groups). Anthony stereotypes to define himself and preserve his self esteem. This relates to a famous study by Fein and Spencer in 1997 that showed that after threatened, participants were more likely to stereotype- and that after stereotyping, their self-esteem improved.
So, bias is sublte and unconscious for the most part, that’s just fucking great. How do we fix it? It’s actually much trickier than you’d think. You see, because it’s implicit, conscious appeal won’t work. Telling a person with the firmly held (but still unconscious) stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent about numerous Black geniuses or PhD’s won’t help. They’ll just look at you like you’re A). Crazy or B). an asshole, for insinuating that they might be prejudiced.
Well, okay, then let’s just educate people about their potential biases and then they can repress those, wouldn’t that work? Actually, not really. To talk about this I gotta talk about something that every psychology student and psychologist hates: Freud.
Most of the things that Freud talked about (Oedipus conflict, sexual repression, Id/Ego/Superego, etc.) are bullshit–completely wrong, but we in field respect the man because he started from nothing and built up a substantial body of inquiry. He did get a few things correct, however, one of them being Ego Depletion. The theory of Ego depletion basically states that you have a quantifiable and finite amount of cognitive resources, and every decision, everything you do depletes that a tiny amount. When you’re running on empty, you make bad decisions, you can’t remember your wife’s birthday, you don’t know who first demonstrated the Auto-kinetic effect, etc. These cognitive resources also factor into willpower too. This is why you gotta pick your battles with temptation, and give in to some small ones in order to be able to resist bigger ones. But I digress.
Now, for some people who repress prejudice all the time, it’s easy, it doesn’t require nearly as much cognitive power as people who don’t normally repress these ideas. Repression is bad for these unmotivated people because repression actually primes you to think prejudice thoughts. Let me demonstrate- what do you think of when I tell you “DON’T THINK ABOUT A WHITE HIPPOPOTAMUS” ?
If you’re most people, you thought of a white hippopotamus (or I’ve lost you because of my bigot-bashing). But telling people to repress stereotypes actually activates them, and when those cognitive resources start to run low, you can bet those stereotypes will start to come out more prevalently than if they weren’t repressed to begin with. Oddly enough, we have found that simply giving someone sugar (REAL sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup or splenda) can replenish cognitive resources and help ease ego depletion. Keep in mind, again, that this is for people who are not naturally motivated or not accustomed to active stereotype repression.
Well, what does work? Long story short: distracting them. Superordinate goals, goals that require the active participation of multiple goals, seem to be the key. We just saw a great example of a superordinate goal that transcended social barriers: the Boston Marathon Bombing. In a terrible instant, you saw all groups of people drop everything to help those affected and to bring justice to those responsible. For a short period of time we forgot our bigotry and our ignorance.
Join me next week as I delve deep into the world of science to combat scientific ignorance in Hollywood. Also, as an aside, I felt really weird typing that title, not necessarily because of the tounge-in-cheek reference, but because I’ve never typed out “power ranger.” Any way you type it, it looks weird.
Also, be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question? Ask it!
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.