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Why we hear this so often: “Some of my best friends are…”

Friday, May 30, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

some of my best friends areIt’s a common line, typically heard right before some sort of slur. It reminds me of the ‘friends’ who make some ruthless joke at the expense of someone, then say “Hey, I was only kidding! Some of my best friends are Black/Gay/Women/Disabled/Old.”

New work from the researcher who wrote Racist Roads Not Taken, says what we probably knew all along: it’s a self-protective move, masking the underlying bias the speaker is trying to avoid disclosing. We don’t want others to think we are racist/homophobic/sexist/ or biased against the disabled or old(er) folks. So we protest, like Lady MacBeth, just a bit too much.

Daniel Effron is following up on his earlier work to explain why, based on more than mere intuition and anecdote, we tend to defend decisions that might make us seem biased to others, by invoking the presence of our “friends”. Essentially, Effron calls this tendency a defensive reaction in response to a sense our “moral identity” is being threatened/questioned. In other words, the belief that we might be seen as racist (or homophobic, sexist, ageist or biased against the disabled) results in us overestimating how past “non-discriminatory” actions or choices are indicative of our actual lack of bias against the current target group.

One question raised by Effron is “does over-estimating the value of your ‘non-racist credentials’ work?” That is, do observers see your reported history of having a Black friend or of standing up for a gay colleague at work as indicative of a lack of prejudice? It must work, right? Otherwise why would it be such a common strategy? Turns out it doesn’t really work at all. Others see right through us:

Overestimating your non-racist credentials (e.g., saying you are not racist because you have a Black friend) is more likely to be seen as prejudiced than underestimating your non-racist credentials (e.g., not justifying your decision).

It’s probably more common than we think and Effron’s seven studies show our tendency is to “protest too much” in our own defense, over and over again. We want others to see us positively. Unfortunately, those self-protective (“I really am a good person”) protests have the opposite effect from what we intend since others see the excuse/explanation itself as a sign of prejudice.

Effron does identify multiple strategies we can use when our moral identity is questioned. We can act virtuously, distort our memory of our [past] moral track record, or lower our standards for what we believe will count as moral credentials [this is what happened in the current research findings]. Regardless of how we make efforts to magnify or overestimate our moral credentials, observers will likely find us wanting. In short, it’s probably better to just keep your mouth shut rather than put your foot in it.

An unrelated observation that we reflect on from time to time in our work on cases with issues or themes that touch on social evolution is that of the tipping point. At what point does society start looking at an issue or an action as being socially unacceptable? It varies depending on various factors including the societal subset one moves in, region of the country, and economic security. For example, gay rights was not a widely embraced value a decade ago, and now it is a foregone fact of life. Legalization of marijuana was controversial less than a decade ago, and now a majority of the country favors it. There is always a mountain to climb in terms of cultural bias, though, and the challenge will remain to be aware of who the social out-groups are, and how to neutralize bias against our clients and key witnesses. It always boils down to who is “not like me”, or “not like people I love”.

Effron DA (2014). Making Mountains of Morality From Molehills of Virtue: Threat Causes People to Overestimate Their Moral Credentials. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 24793359

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