When Not Discriminating Is Discriminating

Jenessa Shapiro's thought-provoking research on stereotypes

Posted Dec 15, 2018

Jenessa Shapiro was one of the most well-liked graduate students ever to pass through the social psychology program at Arizona State University.  Her default facial expression was a warm smile, and even though she studied prejudice and discrimination, rather depressing topics, she was optimistic about the prospects of using scientific methods to improve relationships between the members of different groups.  Besides her obvious fondness for other human beings, Jenessa also loved research.  Graduate students who treat their work as fun, and who are intrinsically curious about their subject matter, tend to be more successful, and Jenessa was a shining example. She had come to ASU from Rice University, where as an undergraduate, she had already gotten involved in several research projects with her advisor, Mikki Hebl.  So in graduate school, Jenessa hit the ground running, and generated enough interesting research findings not only to earn her Ph.D. but also to land a top-flight academic position in UCLA’s psychology department.  There, her career began to take off, as she generated several grants to extend her earlier findings, and investigate other facets of human stereotyping and discrimination.  But unfortunately for the many people who loved and admired her, and for the field of social psychology, Jenessa developed cancer, and although she fought it for several years, and was amazing in her resilience and optimism, she passed away last week.  

Since Jenessa loved doing research, though, and loved making other people happy, I would guess that rather than dwell on the sad part of the story, she might have preferred I honor her memory by sharing a couple of her research papers.  So, I’ll tell you about two of her papers with which I am most familiar, each of which makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the mental processes involved in stereotyping and prejudice.  Probably her best known paper explores the different aspects of “stereotype threat” (Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007).  This was the subject of Jenessa’s comprehensive paper, which has gone on to have an impressive scientific impact, and which I will talk about in a separate post. 

The other is a multi-study research paper that Jenessa did while she was at ASU, titled “Following in the wake of anger: When not discriminating is discriminating” (Shapiro, Ackerman, et al., 2009).  That paper presents a thought-provoking set of findings, which as the title suggests, indicate that sometimes a failure to discriminate can itself be an indication of negative stereotypes.  

Contrasting Contrast Effects for Whites and Blacks

Here is the set-up. If you were a subject in the experiment, your task would be simple.  You would view photographs of either animals (birds or horses, for example) or human men’s faces (wearing either an unemotional expression or an angry scowl).  After seeing each photo, you would simply judge how threatening the person or animal was.  The animals were simply thrown in as distractors; Jenessa and her colleagues were really interested in whether the men’s faces would be judged as more or less threatening if they followed another man who was angry.  It turned out that a man wearing a neutral expression was judged as less threatening if the man before him was wearing an angry scowl.  This is an example of what psychologists call a contrast effect (as when lukewarm water is experienced as cold if your left hand was previously in a bucket of hot water, but the same lukewarm is simultaneously felt to be hot by your right hand which was previously in a bucket of ice water). 

The stimuli used in the actual research were facial photographs (presented in sequence, not simultaneously).  This image original by D.T. Kenrick, used with permission.
Source: The stimuli used in the actual research were facial photographs (presented in sequence, not simultaneously). This image original by D.T. Kenrick, used with permission.

But there was a twist: the contrast effect following an angry face was only found if the two faces were White men.  When the first face was an angry Black man, and the next face was another Black man wearing a neutral expression, the second (neutral) man was not judged as less threatening (if anything, there was a slight tendency for the second Black man to be judged as a little more threatening than he would have been judged otherwise). 

Douglas T. Kenrick, based on Shapiro et al. (2009).  Used with permission.
Source: Douglas T. Kenrick, based on Shapiro et al. (2009). Used with permission.

Was this because the research subjects, who were all White, simply failed to distinguish between different Black men, and blurred the first and second man together?  No.  If the first Black man was smiling, and the second Black man was wearing a neutral expression, the second (neutral) man was perceived as significantly less friendly than he would have been judged otherwise. This did not happen with White faces. In fact, just the opposite happened: when a neutral White man followed a smiling White man, some of the positivity rubbed off on the second man.  

D.T. Kenrick, based on Shapiro et al. (2009).  Used with permission.
Source: D.T. Kenrick, based on Shapiro et al. (2009). Used with permission.

So, clearly White participants were able to discriminate between different Black men’s faces, but the direction of participants' emotional reactions suggested their perceptions of Black men were being influenced by an expectation that Black men are more likely to be threatening and dangerous.  After seeing an angry Black man, any other Black man was simply assimilated as part of a threatening group.  A third experiment in the series supported that suggestion, finding that White people who were less likely to endorse stereotypes about Blacks showed the same judgmental contrast for a neutral man following an angry man, whether they were judging Blacks or Whites.

The psychology of imagined threats

This research contributed to a wider literature, including some other studies by Jenessa Shapiro and her colleagues, which suggested that sometimes White people “see” threats from Black men that do not actually exist.  Her paper was published three years before Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenage boy, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Florida, who had been tailing Martin because he perceived the boy to be a potential criminal (when in fact the boy, who was African American, was simply walking back to his father’s house after a trip to the grocery store).  This is of course only one of many such incidents -- in which a failure to perceptually discriminate between threatening and non-threatening members of a group leads to an act of violent discrimination on the part of the perceiver.  Shapiro's research combines with such real life tragedies to highlight the crucial importance of understanding the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of race-based stereotypes.   

References

Shapiro, J. R., Ackerman, J. M., Neuberg, S. L., Maner, J. K., Becker, D.V., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). Following in the wake of anger: When not discriminating is discriminating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (10), 1356-1367.

Shapiro, J. R., and Neuberg, S.L. (2007). From stereotype threat to stereotype threats: Implications of a multi-threat framework for causes, moderators, mediators, consequences, and interventions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 107-130.