Power of Haas Ideas

Demonstrating Tolerance

If you show that “Black Lives Matter,” others will too, Assoc. Prof. Dana R. Carney finds

The “Black Lives Matter” hashtag evolved as a call to expand the conversation about racial inequality. But what if social change were less dependent on talking and more dependent on nonverbal communication? New research finds that small cues play an important role in racial discrimination.

Although unconscious biases are subtle, they are automatically and sometimes uncontrollably expressed through negative nonverbal behaviors, such as not smiling. Sometimes—maybe even often—people have little conscious awareness that they are expressing racial bias through behavior or that they are biased in the first place. But these actions—positive and negative—are contagious.

Haas Associate Professor Dana R. Carney and colleagues from Harvard and Princeton described these findings in “Some Evidence for the Nonverbal Contagion of Racial Bias” (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, June 2015).

The research shows, for example, that people observing a white American engaging in positive nonverbal acts toward a black American—such as smiling more often and making eye contact for longer periods of time—become less likely to perpetuate racial discrimination. Specifically, small acts of positivity by white Americans toward black Americans cause observers to hold fewer stereotypes about black subjects and to have more positive attitudes toward them in general.

In this study, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of two types of videos. In one, highly biased white Americans exhibited small, negative nonverbal behaviors of bias, such as less smiling, less eye contact, sitting farther away, and orienting their bodies away from a black American. The second type of video showed whites who held blacks in high regard and naturally expressed their positive biases through more smiling, more eye contact, sitting closer to, and orienting their bodies toward them.

Participants then rated the black American in the video on how much they liked or disliked them or whether they would want to be friends. They also rated the black American on six adjectives: kind, considerate, thoughtful, hostile, unfriendly, dislikable.

Participants who observed the subtle anti-black bias videos formed more negative impressions of the black person, adopted more negative racial stereotypes, and demonstrated greater anti-black bias themselves. Thus, results suggest that nonverbal expressions of racial bias affect passive observers.

But the converse was also true. Observers of micro-positive behavior toward a black subject formed more positive impressions, adopted fewer racial stereotypes, and were found to have less racial bias toward black Americans in general. Participants liked and wanted to be friends with the black American who was on the receiving end of positive micro nonverbal behaviors significantly more than they liked and wanted to be friends with black Americans who received negative nonverbal micro aggressions.

“Prejudice manifests often as micro acts of aggression,” says Carney. “What is hopeful is that our study also indicates that positive behavior toward different social groups can be contagious.” —Pamela Tom

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