People perceive men with 'black' sounding names as larger and more dangerous person, says a new study. The study explores racial bias and how people use their mind's eye to imagine someone as either threatening or high status.
Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) sought to understand how the human brains' mechanism for interpreting social status evolved from the same mental systems that our early ancestors originally used to process threats.
The series of study involving more than 1,500 people found that an unknown black male is conceived of similarly to an unknown white male who has been convicted of assault.
"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," said lead author Colin Holbrook from UCLA.
"The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name," said Holbrook.
In all versions of the study, participants were asked their intuitive impression of the character's height, build, status, aggressiveness and other factors.
During one of the series of the study, the mostly white participants, aged 18 to mid-70s, from all over the United States and self-identifying as slightly left-of-center politically, read one of two nearly identical vignettes.
The researchers found that not only did the participants envisioned characters with black-sounding names as larger, status were linked in opposite ways depending on the assumed race of the characters.
The larger the participants imagined the characters with "black"-sounding names, the lower they envisioned their financial success, social influence and respect in their community. Conversely, the larger they pictured those with "white"-sounding names, the greater they envisioned their status, said co-author and UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler.
Holbrook said that this study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it's important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads.
"In essence, the brain's representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status. However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men," added Fessler.
The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.