Study finds we are better able to detect racial tension in members of our racial group

Dec 22, 2008

In March of 2008, in a speech addressing contemporary racial tensions in America, then-Senator Barack Obama suggested that there is a "chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." Could this be true? Is it more difficult for members of different races to understand each others' emotions and intentions? Psychologist Heather M. Gray from Boston University, along with Wendy Berry Mendes and Carrigan Denny-Brown of Harvard University, investigated whether the ability to detect a person's anxiety declines when perceptions are made across the racial divide.

Although interactions with members of other racial groups are becoming increasingly more common, they are still a source of anxiety for many people. This interracial anxiety can "leak out" in the form of uncontrollable, stressful behaviors such as fidgeting and vocal tension. But how sensitive are we to signs of interracial anxiety, and does race influence the ability to detect interracial anxiety in other people?

To answer these questions, the researchers videotaped White and Black participants as they performed a difficult task in front of a panel of either same-race evaluators (i.e. White participants with White evaluators) or different-race evaluators (i.e. White participants with Black evaluators). In addition, the researchers measured the participants' cortisol (a hormone that increases when we are stressed) levels to gauge how stressed participants were. Then, a separate group of White and Black observers watched the videotapes of the participants (without seeing the evaluators) and were asked to rate the participants' anxiety.

The results of the study, reported in the December issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that we are better able to detect anxiety in members of our own racial group than in people of different racial backgrounds. Only the same-race observers detected an increase in anxiety when participants were engaged in an interracial encounter; different-race observers failed to detect this change. And even more interesting, only the same-race observers noticed changes in anxiety that matched up with the participants' actual stress levels (as determined by measuring cortisol).

The authors suggest that "race-matched observers appeared to draw upon subtle nonverbal indicators of intergroup anxiety that were undetectable to race-mismatched observers." They note that being out of tune to the emotional states of people from different backgrounds "may make it difficult to develop a sense of shared emotional experience."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US official: Auto safety agency under review

10 hours ago

Transportation officials are reviewing the "safety culture" of the U.S. agency that oversees auto recalls, a senior Obama administration official said Friday. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been criticized ...

Out-of-patience investors sell off Amazon

10 hours ago

Amazon has long acted like an ideal customer on its own website: a freewheeling big spender with no worries about balancing a checkbook. Investors confident in founder and CEO Jeff Bezos' invest-and-expand ...

Ebola.com domain sold for big payout

10 hours ago

The owners of the website Ebola.com have scored a big payday with the outbreak of the epidemic, selling the domain for more than $200,000 in cash and stock.

Recommended for you

Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

Oct 24, 2014

New research findings from a team of prevention scientists at Arizona State University demonstrates that a family-focused intervention program for middle-school Mexican American children leads to fewer drop-out rates and ...

Bilingualism over the lifespan

Oct 24, 2014

It's a scene that plays out every day in Montreal. On the bus, in schools, in the office and at home, conversations weave seamlessly back and forth between French and English, or one of the many other languages represented ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

VOR
not rated yet Dec 24, 2008
"Could this be true? Is it more difficult for members of different races to understand each others' emotions and intentions? " ya think, lol, idiots. white men psychologists can't think. We didnt need a study to know this. And now we have this terribly useful information. But I guess its good to have evidence to support the known fact that different cultures and races have diffulty getting comfortable around each other. Now if the stupider ones among us blame stress on baseless prejudice, just show them this article.