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Does This Recession Make Me Look Black?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

After almost two decades working in trial consulting, there are few things that actually shock us. But this one is sure curious. When times are tough, we are more likely to categorize biracial faces as Black.

Researchers at Texas Christian University wanted to see if people exposed to scarcity would restrict their definitions of who was part of their racial in-group. Prior research cited in the article shows that when times are abundant, our in-group boundaries (e.g., who we categorize as “in” and who we categorize as “out”) are relatively loose. However, when times are tougher and resources are more scarce, our tendency is to only categorize as “in-group” those whose appearance is straightforward and unambiguous. When we feel economically safe, our tent grows large. Under financial strain, it shrinks.

The researchers did two separate studies (using two separate strategies to elicit a sense of abundance versus a sense of scarcity) and then asked the all-White research participants to rate computer-generated photos of biracial faces as being either Black or White. (The photos were generated using an “averaging” program  to combine a Black face and a White face to create a Biracial face.)

In the first study (based on visual stimulation), some participants were shown a slide show depicting economic scarcity (e.g., a photo of an empty office with a caption about the dearth of good jobs). Others were shown a slide show depicting prosperity (e.g., a picture of a thriving office with a caption about plenty of good jobs). Then they looked at 20 biracial faces (10 male and 10 female) and were asked “If you had to choose, would it be more accurate to describe this biracial individual as Black or White?”. More of the participants in the scarcity condition classified the Biracial faces as Black.

In the second study (based on verbal stimulation), participants participated in some multiple-choice formatted analogy exercises used to elicit either scarcity (e.g., “sweat is to summer as debt is to ___”) or abundance (“payday is to money as harvest is to ___”). A third group (the control group) completed neutral analogies. Then they were shown the photos as in Experiment 1. Again, those in the scarcity condition classified more Biracial faces as Black than either those in the neutral condition or the abundant condition.

The researchers see this as a sign of bias elicited by a sense of resource scarcity. There were no differences based on gender of either the Biracial face or the research participant. In other words, it did not matter if a male or female research participant was looking at a photo of a male or female Biracial face. What mattered was the participants frame or how they were primed by the researchers: are times abundant or are times scarce? If times were scarce, the White participant was more likely to define the Biracial face as a member of the racial out-group (i.e., “this person is Black”).

It’s a pervasive bias and therefore insidious. When you least expect it, bias can emerge. We’ve talked a lot here about both racial bias and the importance of making your client similar to your jurors. This study offers one more current look at how deeply seated our sense of racial in-groups are and how racial biases can interact with our willingness to see others as “belonging” to our group when we feel times are scarce and there is not enough to go around.

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Thanks! Doug and Rita***

Rodeheffer CD, Hill SE, & Lord CG (2012). Does This Recession Make Me Look Black? The Effect of Resource Scarcity on the Categorization of Biracial Faces. Psychological science PMID: 23085641

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