A new psychology study has some surprising findings about how American culture may be contributing to racism.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology investigated why people tend to display tinges of racism, sexism or ageism, even towards members of their own group.
Although some psychological studies have suggested that racism, sexism and ageism tend to be universal, pscyhologist Dr. Paul Verhaeghen and fellow researchers found that American literature and media contribute to social stereotypes.
Literature, movies, TV, radio and the Internet all contribute to the problem by exhibiting the same stereotypes that others work so hard to snuff out.
“There’s one idea that people tend to associate black people with violence, women with weakness, or older people with forgetfulness — because they are prejudiced. But there’s another possibility that what’s in your head is not you, it’s the culture around you,” said Verhaeghen.
“And so what you have is stuff you picked up from reading, television, radio and the Internet. And that’s the question we wanted to answer: are you indeed a racist, or are you just an American?”
To study this question, they gave study participants a questionnaire designed to rate the amount of prejudice (both negative and positive) they exhibited.
Investigatos also timed their subject’s response times to different types of word pairs. The first types were word pairs typically associated with stereotypes, like black-lazy, female-weak or old-lonely.
They contrasted this with pairs of words that contain the same first word, but are not stereotypical pairings, like black-goofy, female-uptight, or old-playful. A third type were words that are highly related, but do not reflect stereotypes, like night-cool, or summer-sunny.
Social psychologists believe that these very fast response times that people tend to exhibit for stereotypical pairs are a reflection of an unconscious, gut-level type of prejudice.
For the next step of the investigation, researchers examined a collection of works known as the Bound Encoding of the Aggregate Language Environment (BEAGLE), which contains a sample of books, newspaper and magazine articles, about 10 million words in all, thought by psychologists to be a good representation of works that are in the American culture.
They looked at how often the words they tested their subjects on were paired together in the literature.
Finally, they correlated the results of their tests with what they found in BEAGLE.
Researchers discovered participants responded faster to the pairs that were more often found together in the literature, whether they were stereotypical or not.
Words like “black” tended to have a much stronger correlation with words that are associated with negative and positive stereotypes like “lazy” or “musical,” than with words like “goofy” that aren’t associated with stereotypes.
But pairs that were often found in the literature together, like day and light or summer and sunny also inspired a faster response time for participants than words that weren’t found together in BEAGLE.
Other pairs that had strong correlations were “white” with “greedy” and “successful;” “male” with “loud” and “strong;” “female” with “weak” and “warm;” “old” with “lonely” and “wise;” and “young” with “healthy” and “reckless.”
This finding leads scientists to believe that the very fast gut reaction measured through response times doesn’t have much to do with the prejudice of the subjects, but a lot more with how often people have seen or heard these words paired over a lifetime.
They also point out that response times were not correlated with the questionnaires about prejudice.
“One of the things these findings suggest is that for those of us who, like me, very often feel guilty about these gut reactions you have and you’re not supposed to have is those gut reactions are normal and they have very little to do with you. They have more to do with the culture around you,” said Verhaeghen.
“What is more important is your behavior, rather than your gut reaction.”
“The second thing is that there’s a reason for political correctness. At least, as studies suggest, it might be a good idea to not put stereotypes out there too clearly, because if you do, people will internalize them.”
The findings are published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
Source: Georgia Institute of Technology