Can TV influence our racial biases, simply by the way that TV characters treat one another on a show? According to new research, the answer is yes — nonverbal behavior displayed by TV characters influences racial bias among viewers.
“Today, racial bias is often revealed via more subtle means than outright racial slurs,” said first author Max Weisbuch, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University.
“We wanted to know how frequently people were exposed to those subtle patterns of racial bias via TV and what influence such exposure might have. Sadly, we observed that nonverbal race bias is a typical pattern on scripted television shows. White characters are treated better across the board and this has an impact on viewers.”
Black characters elicit especially negative nonverbal responses, such as facial expressions and body language, from other characters. TV viewers watching such negative responses were found to then exhibit more racial bias.
The Tufts team studied the prevalence, subtlety and impact of nonverbal race bias in 11 popular weekly scripted television shows. They found that characters on the shows exhibited more negative nonverbal behavior toward black characters than to white characters of the same status.
Exposure to “pro-white” (vs. “pro-black”) nonverbal bias also increased viewers’ race bias, as assessed with reaction-time and self-report measures.
“Our findings suggest that hidden patterns of televised nonverbal behavior do measurably influence bias among viewers, even though viewers may be unable to consciously report observing a pattern of bias,” said senior author Nalini Ambady, Ph.D., professor of psychology, director of the Interpersonal Perception and Communication Laboratory at Tufts University, where the research was done.
The study authors examined black and white characters whose status and positive attributes, such as likability and intelligence, could be roughly equated. For each of 30 characters, they edited brief clips to remove both the audio track and the featured black or white character, so it was possible to see how the “target” character was treated without actually seeing that character.
Judges, who had not previously watched the shows, rated the extent to which the unseen characters were treated positively and liked by the other characters. Compared with black characters, white characters elicited significantly more favorable nonverbal responses. The studies did not examine why biases in the programs occur.
In addition, the Tufts researchers examined the effects of exposure to such nonverbal race bias on observers.
The researchers found that participants exposed to silent “pro-white” video clips later exhibited significantly faster reaction times to white-positive and black-negative pairings than to white-negative and black-positive pairings.
The researchers also discovered that observers found it difficult to recognize a pattern of bias across the pro-white or pro-black clips — thus, the bias patterns were quite subtle.
According to the study, “Nonverbal behavior that communicates favoritism of one race over another can be so subtle that even across a large number of exposures, perceivers are unable to consciously identify the nonverbal pattern. Nevertheless, exposure to nonverbal race bias can influence perceivers’ race associations and self-reported racial attitudes.”
The research is entitled, “The Subtle Transmission of Race Bias via Televised Nonverbal Behavior.”
The study appeared in the December 18, 2009, issue of the journal Science.
Source: Tufts University