Racial bias is more common than people choose to believe. Even individuals who profess that they are not biased can find themselves exhibiting racially biased behaviors during interracial interactions. These situations can be stressful and cumbersome for people who approach them with fixed perspectives. Some experts believe that the way in which people look at their own racial bias can influence their ability to change it. This was the focus of a recent study led by Rebecca Neel of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. Neel and her colleagues conducted four separate experiments involving interracial and intraracial exchanges to determine how racial bias malleability, as perceived by the participants, would affect the outcome.
The study assessed white participants as they engaged with minority participants. Across all four studies, Neel found that the perception of bias flexibility had a direct effect on the shape of the exchange. For instance, white participants who thought that racial bias could be changed were interested in learning what caused the exchange to deteriorate and what they could do to achieve a different and more positive outcome. In contrast to these behaviors, the white participants who believed that racial bias was concrete in nature tended to use avoidant behaviors. These participants also overcompensated for their bias in order to conceal their prejudice.
Neel noted that although one would think that perceiving bias as flexible could allow for more positive outcomes, that is not always the case. For instance, some minority participants did not like assuming the role of teacher for their partners. However, the white participants who overcompensated for their bias felt uncomfortable doing so and had increased levels of anxiety and less satisfaction with the interaction than those who were genuine in their exchanges. Neel believes that the results of her study could have significant clinical implications. The way in which a person thinks about prejudice may open the door for further exploration about racial bias and multicultural concerns in general. “Thus, psychologists will benefit from future research exploring how lay theories of racial bias influence the success of interventions designed to improve interracial interactions,” said Neel.
Neel, R., Shapiro, J. R. (2012). Is racial bias malleable? Whites’ lay theories of racial bias predict divergent strategies for interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.1: 101-120.
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