The Perceptions of Race That Hinge on Stress

A new study found that when resources were scarce, white people had different definitions of "black" and were less generous toward people with darker skin tones than toward people with lighter skin.
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The Labor Department said on Friday that employers hired 217,000 workers last month, bringing the job market back to 2008 levels.

It took more than four years to get back to this point after the recession wiped out more than 8.7 million jobs in just two years. And most economists think we’re not out of the woods yet: As my colleague Derek Thompson points out, the labor force participation rate is still at a multi-decade low.

But according to a new study, jobs and wealth weren’t the only things we lost in the recession. All of those economic woes might have also influenced how people perceive other races and have made people less generous toward those who look different from them.

For a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Amodio, a psychology professor at New York University and Amy Krosch, a graduate student, performed a series of experiments that showed that their predominantly white study subjects tended to view biracial people as “more black” when they were primed with economic scarcity, and that the subjects were stingier toward darker-complexioned people overall.

First, the researchers asked 70 people to fill out a questionnaire that assessed their concern about economic competition between races. (The statements included things like, “When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically.”) They were then asked to identify the races of an array of images of faces, which had been created by fusing different percentages of a picture of a white person with an image of a black person.

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The authors found that the more the subjects believed that whites and blacks were locked in a zero-sum rivalry, the likelier they were to see the lighter-complexioned faces as “blacker.”

Then, in a second test, 63 subjects primed with words suggesting a lack of resources, such as "scarce," saw mixed-race faces as more “black” than they actually were. For example, they considered a face that consisted of two-thirds a picture of a white person meshed with one-third an image of a black person as fully “black.”

Finally, in a money-allocation game, the subjects were given $15 and told to split it between two versions of one image—one lighter and one darker in skin tone. They gave about 70 cents less to the darker face.

Of course, past studies have also shown that scarcity and resource competition fosters distrust between groups. The ingroup/outgroup cognitive bias theory holds that we prefer people who resemble us. But this research suggests that financial strain can cause the very definition of the “out” group to change, as well, by nudging us to view people of other races as even more dissimilar to ourselves.

Black Americans were especially hard-hit by the recent economic slump: From 2007 to 2009, median household wealth decreased by 16 percent for whites and 53 percent for blacks. In hard times, it could be that minority groups are disadvantaged not just by structural economic factors, but also by our attempts to alienate those who look different from us.

“At a broader level, it shows that the effects of scarcity on these socioeconomic patterns might be driven by psychological processes at the individual level,” Amodio said. “The fact that resources are scarce in society is enough to change the way an individual looks at other people.”

Krosch and Amodio write that although many people harbor subtle prejudice on some level, those negative thoughts are “kept in check through effortful cognitive control.” But economic scarcity is mentally taxing – poverty makes it harder to maintain socially acceptable beliefs and allows ugly prejudices to sneak through.

And that’s a critical thing to keep in mind, since attitudes toward race can literally make or break lives and communities. Past studies have found, for example, that in death-penalty cases with white victims, the more “stereotypically black” the suspect looks, the more likely he or she is to be sentenced to death.

“This would play out in one-on-one situations – like when someone is applying for a bank loan, or dealing with their mortgages, or interviewing for a job,” Amodio said. “These are all situations where the mindset of the person in power could affect how they're seeing this person and forming impressions of this person.”

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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