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Simple Jury Persuasion: Don’t deplete me

Friday, March 23, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve written a lot about racial bias and how it effects all of us. This research is a little scary in highlighting how simple it is for well-meaning ‘interventions’ to result in negative impact for ethnic minorities.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of “color-blindness” when it comes to varying racial groups. Many of us were taught as children that it was more polite to simply not notice the race, ethnicity, and even the skin color of those we encountered.

What does it mean to be “color-blind” when it comes to ethnicity?

Colorblindness is the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity.” 

The authors point out that in, for example, employment settings, the more a multicultural ideology is endorsed by White employees, the more engaged ethnic minority coworkers are in the work itself. So these researchers wondered what effect it would have on ethnic minorities to have Whites primed with colorblindness (versus multiculturalism).

Research participants were female and worked in dyads. They were previously not acquainted with their research partner. The sample included 31 White/White dyads, 25 White/Asian dyads and 23 White/Black dyads. Each of them read news editorials that endorsed colorblindness, multiculturalism or the importance of eating locally grown food (the control condition).

In the interracial dyads (White/Asian or White/Black), White participants read either the multicultural or colorblind editorial while ethnic minorities read the control editorial on locally grown food. In the White/White dyads, participants were randomly assigned to read any of the three editorials.

After reading the editorials, there followed a five minute discussion [this is important--it was only a five minute discussion!] within the dyad on either modern racism or ethnic diversity in schools–and thereafter, each participant went to a separate room to complete a computerized measure of cognitive performance. [Performance on the cognitive tests is significantly affected by emotional states. If a person is upset, distracted, or stressed, performance is expected to be lower.]

The results are disturbing. The important variable was the computerized measure of cognitive performance.

In White/White dyads, there was no difference in level of cognitive performance between the partners.

In both the White/Asian and White/Black racial dyads, the Asian and Black participants were more cognitively depleted after interacting with a White partner primed with the color-blind editorial than they were after interacting with a White partner primed with the multicultural editorial.

Overall, the effect of either the colorblind or the multicultural primes were not different for White participants but differed significantly (and detrimentally) for the ethnic minorities.

Further, judges (who were not informed as to whether a White research participant had been exposed to the color-blind or multicultural editorial) viewed the five minute videotaped discussions and rated the color-blind White participants as communicating in a more racist fashion than the multicultural White participants. When tested, the level of the ratings on color-blind White participants prejudicial statements was related to the level of cognitive depletion experienced by the minority partner.

The researchers say that for short-term interactions, an exposure to the color-blind content among Whites negatively effects the cognitive function of the ethnic minority. We would go a bit further. In our experience, when race is salient (as it was in these dyadic discussions) really strange and volatile things can happen in deliberating groups. We’ve had to intervene between combative jurors when offense was taken (and given). We’ve worked our mock jurors through tears and frustrations and un-politically correct tirades. Do we think our minority jurors were cognitively depleted by those experiences? You bet.

Do we work to combat those experiences so they don’t happen in the actual jury room? You bet we do. This is a terrific research example of why it’s so important to connect your jurors to parties or witnesses via what we think of as universal values. Even if “they” look different than me, we share values of family, community, education, work, and more. The goal is not to make your jurors color-blind but to expand their view of how they may be different and yet the same from the “different” other. “Colorblind” doesn’t work any better than “separate but equal”. Silence doesn’t work. “Be fair” doesn’t work.  It requires building a connection between people through values, priorities, commonalities, and the stories of everyday life.

That’s how you prime your jurors to be multicultural in the courtroom. And more importantly, that’s how you prime your jurors to remember to be multicultural during deliberations.

Holoien, D., & Shelton, J. (2012). You deplete me: The cognitive costs of colorblindness on ethnic minorities Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (2), 562-565 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.010

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