Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Would You Be Nice to a Chauvinist Pig?

What would you do if you heard something really sexist or bigoted?

Imagine you are in a meeting at school or at work, and someone blurts out a clearly chauvinist or bigoted remark.

Ask yourself: how would you respond? Would you put them in their place, or would you be too nice to confront?

Janet Swim and Laurie Hyers asked just this question in a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 1999. Swim and Hyers focused specifically on women's responses to sexist remarks. In one of their studies, 109 women were asked to imagine themselves as part of a small group given the task of assigning castaways roles on a deserted island. The participants read that one of the men in the group repeatedly said sexist things, such as "I think we need more women on the island to keep the men happy," and "one of the women can cook."

Naturally, the study participants were offended, and fifty percent anticipated commenting publicly on the inappropriateness of the guy's comments. About 40% of the participants anticipated that they would also use sarcasm and humor to confront the sexist remark, and 8% anticipated that they would hit or punch. All in all, a full 81% of the women in the study predicted that they would give at least one confrontational response.

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In a second study, Swim and Hyers actually ran the study, and recorded the behavior of the female participants who were part of such a  group. The results? Fifty five percent of participants ignored the comment. Only 16% of women who actually participated in the study commented on the inappropriateness of the response. Two percent grumbled, and nobody hit or punched.

These findings are striking, and underscore the fact that what we think we will do when faced with sexism or prejudice is very different from what we think we will do (another example is found here). Why? People underestimate the power of social norms (specifically, the norm of being polite, even against social transgressors). In addition, in such situations, people anticipate feeling angry, but in actuality they feel anxious. It all comes together to increase the likelihood that people will remain silent, perhaps only stealing a glance at other people to see if they also heard the remark. In other words, we ancticipate that we will stand up against prejudice, when in reality we end up being, well, too nice and polite to further disrupt the social order.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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