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The Cognitive Traps that Can Harm Intergroup Relations

Racial anxiety and the stereotype threat can blunt our egalitarian impulses

By Rachel D. Godsil and Linda R. Tropp

This is the second of a four-part series exploring how racial bias and prejudice continue to have a negative impact in America, despite Americans' widespread rejection of racist ideologies. It draws extensively from our volume, The Science of Equality: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Healthcare. This second part explores how racial anxiety and the stereotype threat can diminish intergroup interactions.

In our first post we explored how two distinct beliefs about the state of race relations in America can coexist. On the one hand, many white Americans genuinely believe that they no longer harbor racist or prejudicial feelings and suppose that racism is a thing of the past. On the other hand, people of color continue to experience incidents of racial bias in their everyday lives—in ways that are small and irksome, such as being followed at a department store, to large and life-changing, such as having greater difficulty getting a job. Obviously, very few whites today deliberately set out to harm African Americans; many, however, hold negative subconscious beliefs and attitudes toward them.

A related problem that troubles race relations today is racial anxiety, which happens when people of one racial group become nervous or uncomfortable interacting with members of another group. Anxiety induces a physiological reaction similar to that produced by an actual physical threat; it can diminish a person’s cognitive capacities, reducing their ability to fully engage with other people. Being prejudiced can itself be a source of anxiety, but sometimes all it takes for anxiety to set in is a simple worry that the interaction won’t go well. Anxiety makes people distance themselves, less apt to share eye contact, and less likely to use a friendly and engaging verbal tone. All of these behaviors can diminish the quality of cross-group interactions. Whites and racial minorities can both experience racial anxiety, but because whites are overrepresented in positions of authority, members of racial minority groups are more likely to experience adverse outcomes of this dynamic.

The research suggests that whites who are biased tend to be more anxious in their interactions with African Americans, perhaps because they are (rightly!) worried about being perceived as racist. But people who are not biased who have experienced little contact with other races are also susceptible to racial anxiety. Once in place, racial anxiety can produce negative feedback loops: Anxious feelings produce lower-quality interpersonal interactions, which can then lead people to avoid contact with others, which can in turn heighten their anxiety on those infrequent occasions when they do have to interact with members of other groups. There’s also an interpersonal dimension: Anxious people cause others to feel anxious. These reciprocal feelings can lead to a condition social scientists call “pluralistic ignorance,” where people unintentionally and even subconsciously behave in ways that confirm the other’s fears.

In fact, sometimes people become so concerned about confirming negative stereotypes about their own group that they can end up confirming them. This is most frequently observed in academic settings, where at-risk groups—such as women in STEM fields and black and Latino students more generally—come to feel their performance as a group is in question. As people divide their attention between their performance and worries about being seen stereotypically, their anxiety triggers physiological changes, diminishes their cognitive capacities, and raises negative affective responses, such as self-doubt. This stereotype threat has been observed in hundreds of studies and is estimated to account for a significant proportion of the racial gap in educational achievement. Beyond the academic setting, the stereotype threat can manifest itself in whites who fear being seen as racist. When experiencing this form of stereotype threat, white participants have been found to become stilted and distanced toward black conversation partners, in a manner reminiscent of the anxiety feedback loop.

These kinds of racial dynamics may seem relatively trivial compared to the larger structural challenges that have historically impeded full social and economic equality between the races. But as we'll describe in our next post, these dynamics can have surprisingly serious consequences as individuals interact with teachers, employers and healthcare providers.

Rachel D. Godsil is Director of Research at the Perception Institute and Eleanor Bontecou Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law.

Linda R. Tropp is Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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