Issues Not So Black and White in Racial Stereotypes

New research has found that white Americans’ stereotypes of black Americans may have little to do with race.

Instead, say researchers from Arizona State University (ASU), many stereotypes reflect beliefs about how people from other environments — or ecologies — are likely to think and behave.

In the new study, doctoral students Keelah Williams and Oliver Sng, with Dr. Steven Neuberg, an ASU Foundation professor of psychology, conducted a series of five studies examining the stereotypes people hold about individuals who live in resource-poor and unpredictable — or “desperate” — environments compared to those who live in resource-sufficient and predictable — or “hopeful” — environments.

Past research has shown that the different environments tend to shape the behavior of those living in them by altering the costs and benefits of different behavioral strategies. For example, desperate ecologies tend to reward faster, present-focused behaviors, while hopeful ecologies tend to reward slower, future-oriented behaviors.

Because ecology shapes behavior, people are likely to use cues to another’s ecology, or environment they come from, to make predictions about how that person is likely to think and behave, according to the researchers.

In fact, they found that research participants stereotyped those from desperate environments as relatively faster. They considered them more impulsive, sexually promiscuous, likely to engage in opportunistic behavior, and as less invested in their education and children, than individuals from hopeful ecologies.

“In America, race and ecology are somewhat confounded — whites are more likely to live in relatively hopeful ecologies, and blacks are more likely to live in relatively desperate ecologies,” said Williams.

“We wanted to examine whether Americans were actually using race as a cue to ecology, and if so, whether providing ecology information independently from race information would lead people to decrease their use of race stereotypes.”

To assess the relationship between ecology and race stereotypes, the researchers first examined participants’ stereotypes of individuals from desperate and hopeful ecologies with no race information provided and compared these responses to participants’ stereotypes of blacks and whites with no ecology information provided.

The findings revealed that the patterns were identical — stereotypes of blacks mirrored stereotypes of individuals from desperate environments, while stereotypes of whites mirrored stereotypes of individuals from hopeful environments.

“However, when provided with information about both the race and ecology of others, individuals’ inferences about others reflect their ecology rather than their race,” Williams said.

Black and white targets from desperate ecologies were stereotyped similarly, and black and white targets from hopeful ecologies were stereotyped similarly, he explained.

“In thinking about black and white individuals from hopeful and desperate ecologies, information about the individuals’ home ecology trumped information about their race,” he said.

The researchers stressed that these findings shouldn’t be taken to imply that race is unimportant, or that stereotypes about people from desperate ecologies are the only source of racial prejudices. Moreover, the researchers note several important caveats for interpreting their findings.

“First, although in present-day America blacks are more likely than whites to be from desperate ecologies, and whites are more likely than blacks to be from hopeful ecologies, this association between race and ecology is far from perfect, meaning that race is an imperfect cue to ecology,” said Neuberg.

“Second, even stereotypes that do possess meaningful kernels of truth are rarely perfect representations of any particular individual. Third, because people are biased to exaggerate perceived threats, stereotypes of those from desperate ecologies are likely to be more extreme than is warranted by the actual behaviors of people living within those ecologies.”

Findings of this study have potentially important implications for understanding racial stereotypes in America, according to the researchers.

“Race stereotypes have far-reaching consequences,” said Williams. “Stereotypes about groups can lead to negative prejudices and discrimination directed towards members of those groups.

“If we can understand why American race stereotypes take the particular forms they do, we may be able to find new ways of reducing racial prejudices and discrimination.”

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Arizona State University

Diverse group of people photo by shutterstock.