The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Native American imagery as sports mascots: A new problem

The dark side of Native American sports mascots

American Indian mascots are a popular choice for sports teams. Controversy has raged, however, about whether such mascots encourage stereotypes about native Americans. New research suggests that there may be a problem of another sort entirely — the use of these mascots seems to increase stereotyping of other groups. The implications of the research are still not clear, but it is almost as though once your hidden brain is encouraged to use mental shortcuts such as “American Indian chief = sports warrior” it more easily comes up with other kinds of mental shortcuts that have nothing to do with American Indians. Sloppy thinking begets sloppy thinking.

Boosters point out the mascots are much loved and used respectfully. Recently, however, Chu Kim-Prieto, Lizabeth A. Goldstein, Sumie Okazaki and Blake Kirschner tested how the use of a University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, affected the tendency of volunteers to stereotype an unrelated group — Asians. They randomized volunteers into groups — one read about or was shown materials depicting the athletics program and Chief Illiniwek and the other was given materials about a university arts center. All the depictions about Chief Illiniwek were exactly as boosters of American Indian sports mascots described — respectful and admiring. The researchers found that volunteers shown the American Indian mascot were quicker to come up with stereotypes about Asians that suggested Asians were socially inept, overly competitive, and not fun-loving.

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The University of Illinois retired the mascot after reviewing these findings. Read more about the controversy here.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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