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“The hubris penalty” is applied to “uppity” Black athletes

Wednesday, March 13, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

Victor-Cruz-salsa-dance-300x260Do we think a football player should be punished for performing a celebration dance? It depends on his race. Even non-football fans have seen the celebration dances done by athletes following touchdowns. If the football player is Black, that arrogance should be punished. If White, it may still be arrogance, but that’s okay. Because they are White.

Wow. Researchers from Northwestern University wondered if Black football players would be seen more negatively (they call it “punished”) for celebration dances following touchdowns. There is research saying that members of high-status groups can behave arrogantly without penalty but that low-status group members cannot. The researchers conducted three different experiments:

The first experiment sampled 74 part-time MBA students (29 female, 45 male) who were all US born, “non-Black” and knowledgeable about American football. They read a description of Black or White football players who either celebrated with a “signature dance” following a successful touchdown or did not celebrate. They were then asked if the athlete should get a salary increase for the successful play.

Black football players who danced were punished financially more than Black football players who didn’t dance (and were therefore seen as more humble). White football players were not penalized similarly–that is, there was no difference in the recommended financial award for the arrogant versus the more humble White football player.

Study 2 sampled 54 non-Black males who could report the length of a football field. This was an age (19 years old to 75 years old) and income diverse (average income slightly below $73K/year) sample. The participants reviewed the same story as those in Study 1 had reviewed and were then asked this question: “If the average wide receiver in the NFL makes around $1M, how much do you think Malik Johnson (or Jake Biermann if the player was reported to be White) should make?”

The results were similar to Study 1 with Black football players celebrating being financially punished while White football players were not.

For Study 3 (now satisfied that Black football players were going to be punished for their arrogance) the researchers wanted to see why and when Black football players would be penalized. Again, 105 White participants able to report the length of a football field were gathered from an online sample. It was again a diverse sample: age ranged from 17 to 68; household income was on average $44K; and women (67 women, 38 men) were included in this sample. This time the participants read similar vignettes to the first two studies with some modifications:  the football players in the vignettes were all Black and either celebrated against a White player, celebrated against a player who race was not specified, did not celebrate at all, and in a “humble” condition, the player simply immediately surrendered the football to a referee as prescribed by the official playbook.

Black players in the celebration against a White opponent condition were rewarded significantly less than the Black player in the no-celebration condition or the humble condition. Similarly, the Black player in the celebration condition not specifying the race of the opponent was also rewarded significantly less than those who did not celebrate and “marginally less” than the Black players in the humble condition.

When the Black football players celebrated, they were penalized more than those who did not celebrate/were humble.

The researchers call this effect the “hubris effect” and refer to the “historical” notion of the “uppity Black” who needed to be taken down a peg or two. This research shows what they describe as “robust evidence” for this sort of hubris penalty against Black athletes but no similar effect for White athletes. In other words, we think it’s okay for White athletes to be arrogant, but Black athletes should know their place.

They cite other disturbing and recent research finding similar patterns:

From a 2010 study: Blacks are penalized for over-performance academically and downplaying achievement or feigning incompetence helps to avoid backlash.

From a 2009 study: Black CEOs benefitted from features that made them seem less competent than “ordinary Blacks”. The assumption here was that too much competence could be threatening to Whites.

It’s a sad and frustrating window into the state of race relations/perceptions in the current day. From a litigation advocacy standpoint, this has multiple implications. [Please understand that we are no more enthusiastic over the following recommendations than we are with the bias that spawned them. We’re taking life as it comes here, and trying to optimize a bad situation.]

Prepare your witnesses and parties with awareness of this dynamic and the expectation that Blacks must be humble.

If your Black client, party, or witness is of higher education, SES, attractiveness, et cetera–pay special attention to evoking juror awareness of “universal values” your client shares with the jurors so the jurors see your Black client as more like them than not like them. The goal with this strategy is to decrease the likelihood of your White jurors being threatened by a high achieving Black party or witness). It’s a case of being more ‘humble’ than should be appropriate. It’s wrong, but it helps.

Consider mitigating the tendency to lower awards to Black plaintiffs or to penalize Black defendants too harshly by using one of our favorite litigation advocacy techniques.

Hall, E., & Livingston, R. (2012). The hubris penalty: Biased responses to “Celebration” displays of black football players Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (4), 899-904 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.004



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