How Does Racism Influence Judgments of Honesty?
When you are talking with a stranger, do you assume that person is being honest? Do you trust everything they say, or do you look at them with a suspicious eye? If the person is White, do they seem more believable to you? What about if they are Black? Does that matter? A recent study examining this issue found that race does matter but in some unexpected ways.
While psychologists have labored over the issue of racism in America for decades, that research has been catapulted to the forefront of cultural consciousness over the past few years. Widespread media coverage of systemic racism, racially-biased police killings, and the rise of white supremacist groups in the United States have brought an intensified focus on what psychological science can tell us about how and why racial prejudice operates in our culture.
Trust and Suspicion
One social puzzle that affects us all is the determination of whether or not we should trust someone. If we naively accept everything everyone tells us, we open ourselves to being duped, scammed, and defrauded. On the other hand, if we are wary and suspicious at every social interaction, we will miss out on opportunities to form close, connections with people who might otherwise cooperate with us and help us. Discerning who can be trusted and who cannot is no easy feat. Dozens of studies have shown that people cannot reliably discern who is lying and who is being honest.
Recent Research on Race and Suspicion
A study from 2017, examined the role that race plays in these judgments of honesty. In a series of experiments, the researchers carefully examined judgments that White participants made about videos of Black people and White people who were either telling the truth or lying. The participants would watch videos of White speakers and Black speakers who were either lying or telling the truth. After each video, the participants clicked a button that either said “Lie” or “Truth” to indicate their judgment about that speaker.
A Race-Based Truth Bias
Interestingly, the results showed that the White participants tended to think that the White speakers were lying. What did they think about the Black speakers? They showed an enormous truth bias! That is, the White participants tended to think that the Black speakers were being honest. In a culture of supposed pervasive racism, this outcome is the opposite of what one might have predicted. Why would White participants tend to think that White speakers were dishonest but think that Black speakers were honest?
Don’t Look Racist!
The researchers had a hypothesis. They speculated that perhaps the White participants had a strong truth bias for Black speakers because they were afraid that if they judged the Black speakers to be lying, they would be viewed as racists. The researchers collected data about how concerned the participants were about appearing prejudiced against Black people. What they found was that Whites who were most concerned about appearing prejudiced were the people most likely to should a strong truth bias toward Black speakers. Whites who had no such fear of seeming prejudiced showed no truth bias toward the Black speakers.
In another study, the researchers made audio recordings of White and Black people who were lying or telling the truth. They had White participants listen to these audio recordings and make truth or lie judgments. In a twist, the participants attached a photo of the supposed speaker to each audio recording. These were fake photos. For some participants, the photo was of a Black person and for other participants, the photo was of a White person. When the scientists examined the results, they found again that if the picture was of a White person, there was a tendency to think the speaker was lying, but if the picture was of a Black person, they had a strong truth bias. So, even when listening to identical recordings, the participants were biased to reported supposed Black speakers as honest and supposed White speakers as dishonest.
The Eyes Don’t Lie
In a final study, the researchers had the White participants complete the original task of judging the truthfulness of White and Black speakers on a video. Again, after each video, the participants clicked either a “Lie” or a “Truth” button. This time, however, the researchers used eye-tracking software to assess where the participants were looking on their computer screens. The results replicated the original findings in that the White participants tended to think White speakers were lying and tended to think that Black speakers were truthful. What they found with the eye-tracking results was a bit surprising. They found that The White participants were much quicker to look at the “Lie” button when the speaker was Black than when they were White. The researchers interpreted this finding to mean that the participants were quicker to entertain the notion that Black speakers were lying.
Taken together the results seem to indicate that White people more automatically infer deception in Black speakers than in White speakers. However, concerns about appearing racist leads them to quash that initial assessment and replace it with a more socially acceptable judgment of honesty. So what does this say about the topography of racism in veracity judgments? It seems to suggest that White people tend to initially have prejudicial judgments about Black people, but then fear of appearing prejudiced causes them to swing in the opposite direction, making prejudicial judgments against White people instead. Perhaps this convoluted pattern of knee-jerk racism followed by desperate lunges in the opposite direction can be extended out to other areas of the social landscape of race and social judgments.
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