Eric Horowitz

Feeling threatened leads people to overestimate the importance of past actions

When something is thoroughly covered by both the New Republic (link is external) and Urban Dictionary (link is external) it has clearly reached a point of sufficient social saturation. So there’s no need to go into great detail about the trope of the accused racist who cites minority friends as proof that they don’t have a single racist bone in their body.

But what makes this defense so popular? Why is there such an urge to bring up something as nondescript as having a friend?

A new study (link is external) by Daniel Effron of the London Business School provides an answer. Effron found that threats to moral identity increase the degree to which people believe past actions have proven their morality. In other words, the threat of appearing racist leads people to overestimate how much their past non-racist actions—like making friends with somebody of another race—are indicative of their non-racist attitudes.

In one set of experiments, participants had the opportunity to make a non-racist choice—for example, reading about a theft and correctly identifying a White rather than Black suspect as the thief. Participants who made the non-racist choice then had to either anticipate a threatening situation (having to defend a statement that compared Blacks unfavorably to Whites) or a non-threatening situation (defending a statement unrelated to race.) Participants then rated how much their initial selection of the White suspect was diagnostic of their non-racist attitudes.

Compared to participants who did not have to face a threatening situation, participants who felt threatened believed their decision to finger the White suspect was significantly more indicative of non-racist attitudes. Threatened participants still believed in the increased importance of their decision even when told that 98% of participants had also chosen the White suspect as the thief.

Might the threatened participants be justified in their beliefs? Do others actually see a previous non-racist decision as meaningful?

Probably not. In follow up experiments outside observers did not believe that selecting the white suspect was a sign of non-racist attitudes. Furthermore, Effron found that overestimating your non-racist “credentials” (e.g. believing you’re not racist because you have a Black friend) is more likely than underestimating your credentials to be seen as a sign of prejudice.

Taken together, the results illuminate the psychological mechanisms behind one of the most popular rationalization of racism. Somebody feels their image of being racially tolerant is under threat, so they overestimate how much previous behavior—having a beer with a Black guy, for example—is a sign of their tolerance. But highlighting this behavior has the opposite of the intended effect because people see the overestimation of the behavior’s importance as a sign of prejudice.

The conclusion is nothing that society hasn’t already figured out. If you’re accused of any kind of inappropriate -ism, don’t defend yourself by citing a particular action or relationship. It’s understandable that doing so seems like the best solution, but it’s probably better to keep your mouth shut. Or at least be prepared to cite 50+ data points rather than the vague existence of “some” friends.


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