In race stereotypes, issues are not so black and white, study finds

December 29, 2015

Recent race-related events in Ferguson, Mo., St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Charleston, S.C., and New York City—all point to the continuing need to study and understand race relations in modern America. These events show how race and stereotypes are intertwined and can lead to explosive situations and protests.

Now, three Arizona State University researchers have approached this problem by asking, why do white Americans' stereotypes of black Americans take the particular forms they do? The answer, surprisingly, may have little to do with race, per se. Instead, many predominant race stereotypes reflect beliefs about how people from different environments, or 'ecologies,' are likely to think and behave.

In "Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes," published in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ASU doctoral students Keelah Williams and Oliver Sng, together with Steven Neuberg, an ASU Foundation Professor of Psychology, conducted a series of five studies examining the stereotypes people hold about individuals who live in resource-poor and unpredictable ('desperate') environments as compared to those who live in resource-sufficient and predictable ('hopeful') environments.

Research shows that desperate and hopeful environments tend to shape the behavior of those living within them by altering the costs and benefits of different behavioral strategies. Desperate ecologies tend to reward 'faster,' present-focused behaviors whereas hopeful ecologies tend to reward 'slower,' future-oriented behaviors.

Because shapes behavior, the authors argue, social perceivers are likely to use cues to another's ecology, or environment they come from, to make predictions about how that person is likely to think and behave. Indeed, research participants stereotyped those from desperate environments as relatively faster—as more impulsive, sexually promiscuous, likely to engage in opportunistic behavior and as less invested in their education and children, than individuals from hopeful ecologies.

But why are these ecology-driven stereotypes relevant for understanding the content of race stereotypes?

"In America, race and ecology are somewhat confounded—whites are more likely to live in relatively hopeful ecologies, and blacks are more likely to live in relatively desperate ecologies," said Williams. "We wanted to examine whether Americans were actually using race as a cue to ecology, and if so, whether providing ecology information independently from race information would lead people to decrease their use of race stereotypes."

To assess the relationship between ecology and race stereotypes, the researchers first examined participants' stereotypes of individuals from desperate and hopeful ecologies (with no race information provided) and compared these responses to participants' stereotypes of blacks and whites (with no ecology information provided). The patterns were identical—stereotypes of blacks mirrored stereotypes of individuals from desperate environments, and stereotypes of whites mirrored stereotypes of individuals from hopeful environments.

"However, when provided with information about both the race and ecology of others, individuals' inferences about others reflect their ecology rather than their race," Williams said. Black and white targets from desperate ecologies were stereotyped similarly, and black and white targets from hopeful ecologies were stereotyped similarly.

"In thinking about black and white individuals from hopeful and desperate ecologies, information about the individuals' home ecology trumped information about their race," Williams said.

The researchers stress that these findings shouldn't be taken to imply that race is unimportant, or that stereotypes about people from desperate ecologies are the only source of racial prejudices. Moreover, the researchers note several important caveats for interpreting their findings.

First, said Neuberg, "although in present-day America blacks are more likely than whites to be from desperate ecologies, and whites are more likely than blacks to be from hopeful ecologies, this association between race and ecology is far from perfect, meaning that race is an imperfect cue to ecology. Second, even stereotypes that do possess meaningful kernels of truth are rarely perfect representations of any particular individual. Third, because people are biased to exaggerate perceived threats, stereotypes of those from desperate ecologies are likely to be more extreme than is warranted by the actual behaviors of people living within those ecologies."

Findings of this study have potentially important implications for understanding the content of race stereotypes in America.

"Race stereotypes have far-reaching consequences," said Williams. "Stereotypes about groups can lead to negative prejudices and discrimination directed towards members of those groups. If we can understand why American race take the particular forms they do, we may be able to find new ways of reducing racial prejudices and discrimination."

Explore further: Study investigates whether blind people characterize others by race

More information: Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes,

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Science: Public interest high, literacy stable

October 28, 2016

While public interest in science continues to grow, the level of U.S. scientific literacy remains largely unchanged, according to a survey by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Experts uncover hidden layers of Jesus' tomb site

October 27, 2016

In the innermost chamber of the site said to be the tomb of Jesus, a restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where ...

Important ancient papyrus seized from looters in Israel

October 27, 2016

(—Eitan Klein, a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has announced that an important papyrus document dated to 2,700 years ago has been seized from a group of Palestinian looters who reportedly ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 29, 2015
I perceive myself as an average white guy. What I find baffling is why the first response by some coloured folk is "because I'm black". I look at every passer by on the side walk but the look I get back from coloured folk again feels like they think I'm looking at them because "they're black". Wrong, I look at everyone. I've never understood this and find it very irritating.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 29, 2015
Tribal differences are seen as racial ones especially in Africa.
My brother-in-law was in Somalia and had nightmares about the multitudes he could not help. They would give a stray dog a drink before they gave water to a dying man of another tribe.
He said it was much worse than Desert Storm. He was a soldier. He had compassion and heart. That culture was a true nightmare. I miss his wisdom.
There is no justice on Earth.
There shall always be the poor so long as there are human beings.
Racism is a lie perpetrated by the ignorant.
People suck.
1 / 5 (3) Dec 29, 2015
It's simpler than this. Bigots are taught. This bigotry exist everywhere within this world. Blacks have been denied equal access. As such, the disparate environment is created. When one can leave it, those that leave will leave a more disparate environment; thus, racism is a self manifestation of bigotry. The only way to rid ourselves is to destroy it and sprinkle these individuals throughout a safe America. Also make bigotry against the law. Better, teach in elementary school The Declaration of Human Rights found written on a stone in Ancient Egypt.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 01, 2016
sprinkle these individuals throughout a safe America? No thanks. We have seen what how our culture has been polluted by the low end culture of many blacks Americans. Let those who seek to move up the ladder, work for it and adopt the goals that made America great.
not rated yet Jan 04, 2016
sprinkle these individuals throughout a safe America? No thanks. We have seen what how our culture has been polluted by the low end culture of many blacks Americans. Let those who seek to move up the ladder, work for it and adopt the goals that made America great.

Don't vilify the victims of capitalism. The American Dream is dead, and it has nothing to do with your perceived "low end culture" of African Americans. The owners of this country (the rich) love to create division between impoverished groups because it takes the focus away from how badly they're screwing the working class with their free trade deals, deregulation efforts, union busting, and privatization schemes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.