The United States may have just elected its first black president, but recent Yale research suggests that fight against racism is still far from over. In a study published in the January issue of Science, Yale psychologist John Dovidio, working with scientists from York University and the University of British Columbia, found that non-black people react to racism against black people less negatively than they expect they will. Divya Subrahmanyan examines the details.


The study examined 120 non-black volunteers who were divided into three groups.

The first group, which was split into three subgroups, was placed in a room containing two individuals posing as participants. When one of the actors, a black man, left the room, pretending to retrieve his cell phone, he bumped lightly into the leg of the other actors, a white person, and then continued out. In the control subgroup, the white person said nothing; in the ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ racism subgroups, he made an overtly racist remark: “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” and “clumsy nigger,” respectively.

The second group read about the incident and the third watched a video of the incident.

Subjects in the group who observed the event were asked to rate their emotions after the event, and were under the impression that the incident was not part of the experiment. Participants in the latter two groups were asked to imagine themselves in the situation and predict their emotional responses. In a briefing after the incident, all three groups were asked to decide which of the two actors they would rather work with.

Dovidio said that the subjects who read about or watched the event generally said they would be very angry in that situation, and frequently said they would confront the person who made the racial remark. Of the subjects who read about the event, 25 percent said they would rather work with the white person over the black person, while 17 percent of the participants who watched a video of the event said the same thing.

The results for the people who participated in the event, though, were drastically different. Dovidio said most showed no significant indication of being upset after it occurred, and no one confronted the white person. Seventy-one percent of them said they would work with the white person.

“There’s a big difference between what people think they’ll do and what people actually put in those situations actually do,” Dovidio said. “People are generally bad predictors of their emotional reactions.


Dovidio posited two explanations for the results. First, Dovidio said, the element of surprise may have caused subjects to discount the seriousness of the event and second, much of prejudice operates subconsciously — studies show that many people who say they are not prejudiced in fact have implicit biases, Dovidio said.

“When someone behaves in a way that is consistent with the unconscious biases we have, we don’t see that as wrong as we think we would,” Dovidio said.

In a commentary article published in the same issue of Science, two psychologists, Eliot Smith of Indiana University and Diane Mackie of the University of California, Santa Barbara, offered a more forgiving explanation for the findings.

People’s perceptions of their roles in social situations — which includes identities such as being a woman, man, student or lawyer — can affect their emotions, Mackie said.

Smith and Mackie suggested that in the Kawakami study, participants who read about or watched the incident thought of themselves as “egalitarians,” and so they anticipated being upset and avoiding its perpetrator. But the participants may have thought of themselves as “cooperative research participants” who needed only to respond to the tasks and events relevant to the experiment.

But despite this explanation, Mackie called the findings “a wake-up call of sorts.”

“Surely most of us believe that faced with an incident of blatant racism we would stand up and speak out,” she wrote in an e-mail. “These results show that on the contrary, when in the grip of a particularly situation, most people did not only not stand up or speak out, they didn’t even feel upset.”


Kerry Kawakami, a professor at York University and the paper’s lead author, said the study uncovers a social problem — if people incorrectly predict how they will react to racism, they may feel they do not need to address their own prejudice.

And Dovidio said these pervasive biases can impede social progress, despite steps forward.

“Obama’s election has the potential to be a really transforming event for our society,” Dovidio said. “But it doesn’t signal the end of racism directly. For racism to end, each of us has to assume responsibility and not assume the problem is gone.”

But the implications of the findings aren’t necessarily limited to racism. In fact, the same phenomenon of indifference may occur in broader social situations, such as emergencies.

Indeed, people often do not intervene on behalf of others, preferring to avoid conflict, he said.

The next step, Dovidio said, who has been doing research in this area for several years, is to determine why people behave as they do, and how to bring these behaviors more in line with people’s expectations for themselves.

“If we can get people to be mindful,” Dovidio said, “people [would be] conscious to do they things they believe in the abstract to be right.”