A new study found that racial bias can make a person with a stereotypically black name loom large—literally—in the minds of whites. Published this week in the Evolution and Human Behavior, the study tapped 1,500+ people to examine how the brain interprets social status and how that mechanism may have evolved from early humans’ system for perceiving threats.
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” lead author Colin Holbrook, a research scientist in the anthropology department in the UCLA College, said in a university release about the study. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”
The overarching study involved several small experiments, which all included mostly white participants. They primarily asked them to read vignettes that either featured a character named Jamal, Darnell or DeShawn (stereotypically “black” names), or that substituted the names Connor, Wyatt and Garrett (typically considered to be “white” names). These were the neutral scenarios. Then researchers added variables that described the men as “successful” or “threatening,” and asked the participants to provide their intuitive impression of the character’s height, build, status and aggressiveness.
“In the ‘successful’ scenario, the white and black characters are similarly perceived. And when the character is convicted of assault, they again have similar outcomes, no matter their name,” Holbrook said. “But people imagine the neutral black character as similar in size to the white criminal character, and we know that this shift in size is a proxy for how violent and aggressive they implicitly perceive the person to be. It’s quite disturbing.”
The participants also pictured the “black” characters as having less money, social influence and respect. “In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status,” said co-author Daniel Fessler, who also serves as director of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture. “However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period.”
The researchers—which also include Michigan State University associate professor Carlos Navarrete—developed this research in response to recent deaths of black people at the hands of police.
“I think our study participants, who were overall on the liberal end of the spectrum, would be dismayed to know this about themselves,” Holbrook said. “This study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it’s important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads.”