Human beings have an insatiable urge to categorize. This is especially the case when it comes to thinking about other people.  More often than we may care to admit, our impressions of others are heavily influenced by the stereotypic traits associated with their group. Once you find out that the individual you’re talking to is a lawyer, a host of assumptions about this person leap to mind. 

There is a problem, though.  Every person can lay claim to membership in an array of different groups.  Here are just a few of the groups to which I simultaneously belong: “professors,” “Americans living in Canada,” “left-handed people,” “Philadelphia Phillies fans.”

Although much of the time we may try to boil another person down to a single category, sometimes we can’t help but view the person as a member of two or more groups simultaneously (e.g., an elderly Black man). This can put us into a bind. What happens when the stereotypic traits associated with these groups conflict with each other? 

Let’s take a closer look at “elderly men” + “Black men.” Research has shown that, although older adults are associated with some negative traits like weakness and incompetence, they are nevertheless generally well-liked. At the same time, research has also shown that Black men attract a host of negative associations and negative feelings.  So how do people handle someone who is a member of both of these categories? 

Recent research by Sonia Kang (Northwestern University) and Alison Chasteen (University of Toronto) has investigated this question. According to them, there are at least three possibilities for how people could handle these kinds of dual-membership individuals:

1.  One group completely overpowers the others. For example, an old Black man is seen as primarily Black and judged on that basis.

2.  The groups sum together (Black + old), such that if both groups have negative associations, i.e. the person faces “double-jeopardy.”

3.  Rather than summing together, one element changes the meaning of the other. For example, perhaps the elderliness component softens some of the associations of the Black component. It might even be the case that people’s associations flip all the way across to the positive side so that elderly Black men are viewed quite positively (think Nelson Mandela). 

Kang and Chasteen tested these possibilities using a creative method. They created realistic animation clips in which a series of faces changed facial expressions gradually (over 17 seconds). Sometimes the faces started out angry and morphed into happy. Sometimes they started out happy and morphed into angry. In addition, the researchers varied whose face was doing the morphing: Sometimes it was a young Black man, sometimes an old Black man, sometimes a young White man, sometimes an old White man. The participants watched these videos on a computer and were instructed to indicate when the first emotion stopped being present by pressing the space bar. The computer recorded how many seconds into the movie the space bar was pressed.

Kang and Chasteen found clear evidence in favor of hypothesis #3. For Black faces, anger was perceived to appear sooner and last longer on young compared to old faces. But for White faces, the opposite was true: anger appeared sooner and lasted longer on old compared to young faces. Examining the positive side of the coin, for Black faces, happiness was perceived to appear later and fade sooner on young compared to old faces. For White faces, again the opposite: happiness was perceived to appear later and fade sooner on old compared to young faces.

In other words, elderliness combined with Blackness was a more favorably viewed combination than elderliness plus Whiteness. Why was this the case? More research is needed to provide a direct answer, but two possibilities seem likely. First, older Black men may benefit from the “contrast effect” of being mentally compared with young Black men–a group that carries such negative associations. A second possibility is that there are more well-known examples out there in the popular consciousness of lovable old Black men than lovable old White men. (The popular Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau movie “Grumpy Old Men” probably didn’t do their demographic any favors.) This explanation raises in interesting question for future research: True, old Black men may be viewed more positively than old White men, but, given their history of subservience and a history of kind-but-stupid TV and movie characters like Stepin Fetchit, to what extent are these positive associations tinged with condescension? 

Reference:

Kang, S.K. & Chasteen, A.L. (2009).  Beyond the double-jeopardy hypothesis:  Assessing emotion on the faces of multiply-categorizable targers of prejudiceJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1281-1285.

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